32. Cycles and the Shadow of Thought

     Subjective consciousness holds in check the world-creating impulses of the pre-subjective, naively realist mind. History has long played leapfrog with such dualities. Matter and mind form an inseparable pair in a dialectic of thing and thought, real and ideal, object and subject, cause and intention, absolute and relative, serious and playful. They are as bound together as the poles of a magnet. They alternate as undercurrents that rise to the surface in philosophical, social, esthetic, and scientific fashions. Together they are the dynamic driving consciousness toward greater objectivity. If there is a need to relativize and subjectify experience and thought-- by disengaging its formal aspects-- there is a corresponding need to reengage on higher levels, to assert more adequate models, to reinvest in better metaphors and explore wider horizons. To leave a nest is to find oneself nested in a larger world.

     The limiting nature of any system of thought excludes whatever is founded on other than its own principles: beyond the frontier of any empire lies wilderness and chaos. The wider world at large is greater than any civilizing order; there is always an edge to the pool of light. The map can never be perfect or complete, and what it leaves out returns somehow to haunt its makers, gaining momentum until the tables are turned and the current reality is eclipsed by its own shadow. History breathes through a dialectic of incompatibles, a dance of yin and yang. Every value, thought, or gesture has a darker side, a shadow cast by its own positive but limited presence. These shadow truths must in turn have their moments up stage, must come forth as realities dominating attention. The shadow solidifies as the solid dissolves into shadow.

     The propositional nature of thought guarantees a complement to any assertion. There is always the other side of the coin. The shadow is a proposition in its own right, an anti-thesis. Because value is defined in terms of the primary system, the shadow may appear as repulsive, degenerate, wrong, frightening, evil, etc. If and when the shadow becomes primary, this value system will be reversed, the world turned upside down. What was evil will be appreciated as good, and vice-versa.

     Shadows are cast by localized sources of light. It is not only the solidity of objects of thought, but the localization of illuminating attention, that produces contrast. Thought always comes from somewhere. Awareness is always identified with a perspective, with the premises of some system, beginning with the body, and focussed on some object. Such thought cannot contain opposites, cannot encompass both the object and its shadow in the same breath. It cannot illuminate areas hiding in shade. Even so, there are no intrinsically dark regions. Darkness is always relative to the source of light, to the mind's assumptions. Shift the light and the shadow moves accordingly.

     There is an intimate relation between negation, or logical contradiction, and processes that oscillate in time. Once in motion, inertia carries a pendulum, for instance, past its natural resting place until its motion has been entirely converted to potential energy through the resistance of gravity. It then swings back the other way, gaining kinetic energy at the expense of its height, and so on. The logic of this behavior could be described as 'if yes, then no'. The same is true of an oscillating circuit: 'if on, then off'. Contradiction cannot be stably contained in the same system, but gives rise to an alternation in time of one state with its opposite. 'Yes' is not simply negated by 'no', but turns into it, and vice-versa. Logical contradiction can be considered an abstraction, out of time, of material contradiction. Conversely, dialectical processes may be considered the acting out in time of logical contradictions.

     Unresolved conflict necessarily moves in cycles. Neither the thesis nor its shadow gains permanent ascendancy. The pendulum never escapes the restraining force of gravity, and gravity (in the ideal absence of friction) never finally overcomes the energy of movement. To the degree that historical forces similarly involve a mutually unstable equilibrium of figure and ground, they are also doomed to repeat in some sense. But to the degree that there is an overall net force acting on the system, it will be driven through a spiral-like evolution. History does not repeat exactly or literally, but thematically, on broad scales. There is a perennial resurgence of interests or points of view that are never completely exhausted or definitively expressed in their heyday.

     The key to dialectics lies in the fact that opposites remain unintegrated, unsynthesized. Synthesis depends on the transcendence of opposition. If there is an overall evolution in the themes of human thinking, it must be because of changes in the container to thought itself-- changes allowing seeming incompatibles to be assimilated to more powerful models. In this process, the system is then freed from some particular dialectical oscillation when specific opposing forces are reconciled. The system can then go on to engage in a fresh dialogue of new or higher-level antinomies.

     Throughout history there has been a dialectical relationship between the playful, inventive, ironic side of the human spirit and the heroic, serious, goal-oriented, realist side. The heroic is straightforward, straitlaced and straight-lined, earnest, passionately simplistic, concerned with content over form, tending toward militarism, conservatism and even fascism in its monolithic beeline toward a monumental and purportedly objective ideal. The ironic is subjective, witty, tongue-in-cheek, curvy and ornate, permissive to self-indulgent and even aimless, tending toward formalism empty of content. The latter is the former put in quotes, bracketed as an inner esthetic object to play with in mental fields. Both are hazardous in isolation, each requiring the balance of the other. We need both the ability to make things real, to be earnest, but also the ability to play, to question.