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Alternate Realism & the Death of New Age

The remarkable election of an African American junior senator to the highest office in the land speaks volumes to our collective desire for a radical departure from the politics of the last eight years. Barack Obama’s “change” mantra, not new to the American campaign lexicon, took on a palpable urgency this season. A tangle of emotions: hope, pride, outrage and fear, swept the long shot candidate to victory and at the outset of 2009 the world watches and waits anxiously to learn exactly what mode of reality we are substituting the former one for. In this time of peril and destabilization, a critical re-examination of our definitive terms and their underlying principles seems to be in order.

Classical realism, as set forth by Plato in his discernment between sense and reason, clarified by his pupil Aristotle, advances three simple but momentous observations about material reality:

  • There is an objective, real world which exists independent of human opinions or desires
  • The substance and relations of this world can be apprehended by the human mind, and
  • Knowledge of and from this world can constitute a sound and immutable basis for individual and collective action.

Western philosophy developed more or less faithfully to these notions until Rene Descartes lobbed a hand grenade into the henhouse with his proclamation that reality emerges from reason alone; innate in the mind and independent of any sensory input. Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) led to subjectivism (whatever I say reality is, it is). From there a number of philosophical strains contrary to realism were spawned; materialism (acquisition is the name of the game), scientism (the laws of nature preside over philosophical or metaphysical considerations) pragmatism (just do whatever the situation requires), etc. The central theme of them all was that reality is so complex that a thing as it genuinely is could never truly be known.

This inherent relativity was evident to some in the First World War. Appalled by the bourgeoisie and the disappearance of morality, the Dadaists began to speak out against cultural and intellectual conformity. Adherents were a loose confederation scattered across the globe. When Andre Breton talked of his Freud-based psychoanalytical training in the cafes of Paris he fell in with local Dadaists, collaborating on a journal outlining a new philosophy. In 1924 The Surrealist Manifesto was issued, officially launching surrealism as a cultural movement. The idea was that by plumbing the unconscious via techniques like anti-art, automatic writing and drawing, irrational impulses could be brought to the surface. By applying Hegelian dialectics (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) there might be resolution, leading ultimately to a more rational, peaceful world. In the mid 1950s, Dr. Timothy Leary (who was introduced to the mother of Uma Thurman by surrealist Salvador Dali) probed psychological depths with hallucinogenic drugs. He and other cultural luminaries shifted the zeitgeist of the 1960s to consciousness expansion. Over time this fused with exploration of esoteric religious and spiritual traditions, environmentalism, the occult, holistic medicine, astrology and quantum physics into what is now called “New Age.”

The term New Age has been used to describe the human potential movement since the late 1800s, beginning with the writings of clear-eyed Russian mystic Madame Blavatsky. In 1987, the worldwide Harmonic Convergence codified it as a mass media phenomenon. Since then, significant portions of it have been mainstreamed into consumer culture. Because “New Age” is increasingly associated with products and marketing, there’s a backlash against the term even on the streets of the ultra-progressive Bay Area. It’s evident in events and workshops I attend, websites, blogs and social network communities I interact with, conversations I have and conversations I overhear. And yet there is a pressing need to be able to identify the various strains of the New Age movement with a term that concisely summarizes them.

To that end, I would like to propose the phrase alternate realism.

Alternate: to occur in successive turns, to pass back and forth from one state, action or place to another, to cause to follow in turns; to interchange regularly.

Alternate realism then, is a return to the original notion of classical realism that a thing in itself can be objectively known, combined with the concept that world-views can – indeed, must – pass regularly from one state to another. Biblical times, by all accounts, were filled with miracles our postmodern minds can barely comprehend. Today, we casually utilize technologies that would have been inconceivable to past generations. Paradigm shifts that sweep through civilizations happen regularly. Nothing I’ve seen suggests that our time is beyond the possibility of this kind of revolutionary restructuring.

It is clear the Enlightenment brought about unprecedented advancements in the fields of science, medicine, technology and art, improving many aspects of daily life. I think it is equally clear however that it obliterated any certainty with which humanity apprehended what was objectively real. When everything became relative, nothing could be truly right (just, moral)… and we have suffered dearly for it.

So: what exactly is “real” in 2009?

What is real is that humankind desperately needs to adapt an alternative to what Ken Wilber calls the “flatland” view pervasive in postmodern society. Far greater minds than mine have noted that tremendous economic, political, planetary, cosmic and karmic forces are coming to bear upon this time in the human saga. They require of us a monumental increase in the speed of accessing, processing and integrating seemingly incompatible phenomena into a whole which is synthetic and organic. The sheer volume of information available has outstripped our ability to use it effectively and appropriately. What is also real is that by some method – I will not attempt to name it here – humankind is in fact undergoing a spontaneous rise in consciousness. In every corner of the globe people are probing nonmaterial realms and becoming deliberate co-creators of reality. I think it could be said then, without exaggeration, that the story of our era is a race between the forces of evolution and the forces of self-annihilation.

What have we to gain?

Alternate realism does for “New Age” what Andre Breton’s Surrealism did for Dada. It redefines the movement of intentional consciousness expansion in all its manifest forms. Nurses who perform touch therapy on newborn babies may not tend to see themselves as New Age, although they are practicing holistic medicine. Researchers of the Higgs boson might not think themselves New Age, although their investigations seek to uncover the mysteries surrounding the very stuff the Universe is made out of. Those fighting to save forests, coastlines and wetlands might not call themselves New Age, though they tirelessly promote the sanctity of the earth. But I think they could call themselves alternate realists. Quite frankly, it just sounds cooler! It’s difficult to imagine sitting in a Paris café or a New Delhi bazaar talking to compatriots about “what’s new in the New Age.” But I certainly can see myself discussing the latest innovations coming out of the alternate realism movement. To me, the phrase carries the weight of a legitimate philosophical position while tantalizingly hinting at virtually limitless possibilities. Instead of sitting there all inert and ambiguous, alternate realism has the feeling of a call to action.

The clock ticks inexorably to 2012: a year the Mayan, Hopi, Cherokee, Hindu and Egyptian calendars portray as anything from the final catastrophic collapse of civilization to a quantum shift from an epoch of war and depravity to one of celestial harmony. In itself, this is ratcheting up emotions even if nothing spectacular happens. In the meantime, we are certainly in what is broadly thought of as the beginning of a long, steep, painful worldwide financial decline. Species are disappearing. Weather is becoming unpredictably odd. The salt water is rising while the fresh water diminishes to the point of being violently hoarded. Nations that are critical to geopolitical stability teeter on the brink. Misguided men use militaristic means to deprive their innocent kinfolk of life and liberty in occupied lands and on subway platforms.

Concurrently; we have elected a commander in chief and leader of the free world who, from skin tone to ideological outlook, appears to be the very personification of diversity and reconciliation. His campaign was a sacred purification rite. His victory was a kundalini rush up the spine of the planet, single-handedly erasing the karma of the last eight years and lighting the lamps of untold billions. Our most cutting edge Quantum theorists are confirming metaphysical truths uttered by our most revered sages. Eyes and hearts are opening as the toxic dust of a passing age is slowly shaken off. If ever in our long sojourn as bipedal primates with problem solving skills and “relationship issues” we required a collective re-branding, it is this moment.

To my thinking, alternate realism is that brand – a way of identifying a breadth of objective truth seeking experiences; from the spiritual quest that leads to a domicile on a city park bench, to the attendance of Burning Man for no other reason but to be naked in the desert once a year with strangers. It is a way of announcing to the world in a single voice that we’ve learned the greatest adventure, the most compelling hero’s journey is the one that leads back home.

©Copyright 2009 Kyva Holman – All Rights Reserved

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About the author: Kyva Holman is a musician, producer, former rapper turned singer/songwriter, inner-city griot/philosopher, activist and writer with recorded and released material and articles in print and online. He is in the process of releasing a 7 song EP called Off The Grid, featuring songs in a bold new genre he created called post hip-hop. It is a combination of rap lyrics and street sensibility with live, acoustic instrumentation and folk-rock overtones. Visit him at his blog, Blogging the Black Bodhisattva.