Following a recent discussion with a friend, I decided to reprint this editorial of P2P News 18, which is a summary of my take on the new age. The new age movement is of course mostly dead, though still pretty much alive as a publishing category, but it was an important cultural moment, with both positive and negative features.
This column may appear strange to some of my friends, since I want to take up the defense of a much derided phenomena, the new age. Despite the many misgivings about this broad movement, I think that overall it played a very necessary role in the evolution of human culture of the late 20th century, as necessary as the Romantic movement a century before.
Defining the new age is of course a very difficult thing, since to many different people it means different things, it has been appropriated by all kind of cults, and has of course become a permanent marketing concept in bookshops, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Essential to the new age is in my view that it was a corrective reaction against an excessive rationalization and mechanization of western life, a reaction on the dissociation between desire and reason that is at the basis of Western civilization. As a reaction it was both necessary, and contained many exaggerated features. I would define it first of all as a general kind of sensibility that one can find in: alternative and complementary medicine, ecological sensibility, an openness to non-traditional spiritual paths be it Eastern or Western esoteric, alternative methods and lifestyles in the fields of education, architecture, communal living; an attention to both healing of the self and an attempt to re-enchant the world through connections with both the natural world and the world of subtle-spiritual experiences.
The flowering of the new age coincided with the political defeat of the 1968 movements, that resulted in a turning inward of many people who felt at the same time obliged to adapt to a world in which they could not recognize themselves, while attempting to nevertheless live their values, and change their life concretely, on a smaller scale, as individuals, families, or communities. The time in which it arose, the end of a long boom, coincided with the continuation of the mechanization and commodification of life in a global capitalist system, a loss of efficiency of the traditional social technologies of control (the institutional framework of school, army, prison, and the like), but especially in the traditional Western Christian traditions which were becoming empty shelves.
One of the first tangible benefits of the new age was to reintroduce the consciousness in the Western world, that spirituality was not a matter of belief, but one of personal experience, that the various traditions contained a vast array of psychotechnologies that could open up new vistas of being and experiencing. It created a possibility for many people to re-integrate this vast body of knowledge and experience, and in a way that individuals could experiment and choose their own combination, rather than following a conventional tradition.
It was also a vehicle to rediscover the dissociated aspects of Western man prior to 1968: the integration of the body, the use of groups with techniques to facilitate authentic communication without the social mask. It was in many ways what Freud would term a “regression in service of the ego”, a return to the repressed areas of the soma (bodily energies), the instinct, emotions, mind and consciousness. Unfortunately, because it proceeded from a total lack of experience, as well as had no grounding in tradition, it frequently stayed in that regressive mode, as a reaction, it was too anti-mind, and disdainful of the critical subjectivity that was one of the hard won features of the western tradition. But to paraphrase Lenin, it probably was a necessary infantile stage of development. In any case, for many it offered many avenues of integrative work on their selves, a positive orientation of self-work and change, in a otherwise dark period of negative social change.
In other ways, it was an heir to Utopian Socialism, given the seeming inability to change society as a whole, countless individuals starting changing their life concretely: first of all by abandoning a blind trust in the mechanistic approaches to the human body espoused by Western medicine; through leaving aside the knowledge-stuffing rote learning in education in view of regarding the child as a whole; and these kind of changes have made the world unrecognizable from what it was 30 years ago. Whatever the negative features of the neoliberal age, many institutions have become more humane, more egalitarian, more respectful, more attuned to the whole person. Individuals changed, institutions evolved, and many small scale communal experiments, even if many failed, yielded valuable learning experiences. To those who fear irrationality, I would answer that most of the people involved were from the top layers in terms of intelligence and education. In a time frame where the left disintegrated and many social acquisitions were undone, the new age sensibility was a guarantee that millions of individuals were continuing concrete efforts. In another important contribution, I see the new age sensibility as also responsible for having forged a new kind of human being that was more apt to survive in a knowledge-based network society.
Of course, now that we have seen the glass half full, it is necessary to attend the glass half empty. As we have said, the new age was reactionary in its exaggerated rejection of cognicentrism, it went often too far in rejecting the role of the mind and of critical intelligence. Instead of integrative, it was often regressive, a “liberation from below”, where selfish desire could reign unchecked.
It fell prey in many instances to cultism, mindless anti-modern reactions, extreme radicalism in food and medical matters that could not recognize anything positive in western science. Spiritually, it had often a rosy outlook, that served as a compensation for living through a dreary reality in which hyper-competition was in many ways degrading the quality of life.
Finally, being born itself in an age of hypercommerce, it didn’t take on the feudal trappings of the earlier spiritual movements, but the trappings of the market, and started functioning in many ways as a series of capitalist enterprises, following a market and a marketing logic, and from the point of view of the users, generating a consumerist attitude of pick and choose. It stayed into an interiorist mode of changing individuals, neglecting social change processes, and got recuperated by cognitive capitalism. Many of these trappings, which sometimes verged on extreme exploitation by scumbag gurus and cults, are now in my view incompatible with a authentic spirituality, which now must be open-ended and participative, and not based on a market model of for-paid experiences. In addition, we must now both reject cognicentrism, but also the regressions of the new age to pre-cognitive levels, and instead opt for an integrative understanding and development of soma-instinct-body-mind-consciousness, where each layer can develop transparently following its own logic, with critical subjectivity intact, but also without any dictatorship of the mind which supposes it already knows where we are heading in these processes of individual, organizational, and societal change. Following Ferrer’s critique in his book Revisioning Transpersonal Psychology, we must also reject viewing the spiritual in terms of individual experience and rather see it as a function of relationality
In conclusion, while we are now definitely beyond a positive role for the new age, it has outlived its usefulness, and its many sub areas are now integrated in the fabric of self, organization, and society, it was a historically important neo-Romantic movement, which served to balance the excessive rationalization and/or mechanization of society, and despite its own excesses, it was a vehicle of change for individuals, communities, and institutions/society.