Technology, Imagination, and the Evolution of Consciousness

Ashton Kohl Arnoldy is a Ph.D. candidate in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at the California Institute of Integral Studies. His dissertation is focused on the evolution of consciousness as presented by the Inkling, prominent interpreter of Steiner, and philosopher in his own right, Owen Barfield. Ashton also creates anthroposophically-inspired digital art through a project called ‹Also Known As›. His current works include a multimedia translation of Steiner’s ‹Calendar of the Soul› and a speculative fiction series set during the time of the moon’s reunion with earth. The following is a conversation about technology, imagination, and evolution, with questions by Charlie Cross.

Charlie Do you want to tell us a little bit more about your work and your introduction to anthroposophy?

Ashton Well, I was raised by an artistic mother who would definitely have put me in Waldorf if she’d known about it – but alas, we were in Arkansas, where there are zero Waldorf schools. Regardless, I had a creative and free-spirited upbringing that rendered the whole approach of anthroposophy – when I eventually encountered it – very familiar to me. I also discovered astrology at a young age, the deeper astrology of birth-chart and transit analysis, when I was 16, which – in my point of view – is laden with Platonic cosmology. So, having worked with that for a long time before actually getting into philosophy, I already intuitively understood this notion of participation and the relationship between the archetypal and the particular – a metaphysical picture that is very alive in anthroposophy.

During my undergrad I studied world religions and filmmaking. I went to a liberal arts school and undertook a transdisciplinary exploration. I was always trying to explore philosophical questions in my artistic work. I was also interested in the philosophy of science in connection with the ecological crisis, so there were all these different fields and issues, always together. During my undergrad, I found the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness graduate program at CIIS in San Francisco, which is a very transdisciplinary program. And the first course I took in that program was on German idealism, which Steiner was in direct continuity with. It was in that class that I was first introduced to Steiner, because the professor assigned a couple of short essays by him which explicate the world pictures of Goethe and Hegel. I was just really impressed in that first encounter with Steiner, with his capacity to sympathetically communicate the world picture of these thinkers.

When I started my graduate studies, I was caught between a conviction that there has been an evolution of consciousness and what, in the field of anthropology is called ‹ontological politics›, which concerns political questions that arise when we don’t just presume a materialistic world picture and force other cultures to assimilate, as has happened with western imperialism. So, I began my studies with this tension between the presentation of an evolution of consciousness which I found very compelling, especially when I first encountered it in Barfield, and this question around what story is being presented, from which point of view, and how this can sometimes lead to violence – as in the colonization of the Americas. There have been presentations of the evolution of consciousness, as in Hegel, where some cultures are treated as, you know, well, primitive and just stuck at the beginning, and no longer a part of the progression of the evolution of consciousness– and such narratives have sometimes been used to justify atrocities. The word ‹progression› is even kind of problematic there. I do not want to reinscribe a colonial way of narrating human evolution. Anyway, my dissertation is trying to bring these questions further.

Charlie So, walk us through Barfield’s vision and how anthroposophy informs this project. Why do you see this as important today?

Ashton I read Barfield’s ‹Saving the Appearances› for the first time at the end of a course called ‹A Brief History of Western Thought›, and Barfield’s presentation of the evolution of consciousness spoke so deeply to me – I felt that there was almost something therapeutic in it. It makes more sense to me now that there has been some kind of development that has led to what Barfield would call ‹modern idolatry› or materialism, which is where we look out through our senses at what we perceive and only see material objects. Objects are opaque, but that wasn’t always the case. Around the time of Galileo and the scientific revolution, the appearances of sense perception were no longer thought to be manifestations of something spiritual in which we also participated. For Barfield, participation refers to the extra-sensory link between appearances and the human subject. Participation is that which unites us with the activity behind the appearances of things, the spiritual processes manifesting as the flux of appearance. Imagination is the power which enables us to see appearances as more than just material objects. He describes an earlier phase in the evolution of consciousness – what he called ‹original participation›, a mode of experience with less of a differentiated center of consciousness; we were more caught up in the flux of the world. This can be discerned in ancient word-meanings such as the word ‹pneuma› which translates today as both breath and spirit, but for the ancients it had a compact meaning that was also an experience. Consciousness, defined by ‹original participation›, experienced the world as rich in meaning and orientation, because we could still behold this spiritual reality behind the appearances – we still ‹participated› in the – and this is the essence of the old mythologies – the universe was speaking within us. He describes this gradual loss of participation, where the world has stopped speaking, at least to some people or some cultures, perhaps. But he says this facilitated the emergence of freedom and individuality and there’s a potential to renew participation with a capacity to contribute in a way that wasn’t perhaps possible before. Barfield is very explicit in saying that his intention with ‹Saving the Appearances› was initially to make Steiner’s work palatable to a larger audience, and a lot of people have called him an interpreter of Steiner, even though he definitely makes his own contributions.

In retrospect, I think that what was really speaking to me through Barfield’s work was an experiential insight regarding the spiritual task of our time, at least for most ‹Westerners›. He was one of the few thinkers who I felt really gestured in a direction or pointed towards things I could do or ways I could grow into, say, a renewal of participation, a renewal of a cosmological orientation and meaningful life. Eventually I realized that much of this was flowing through him from Steiner’s practical indications. And because I find this evolutionary narrative compelling, I also feel the responsibility to articulate it in a way that does not perpetuate colonial power dynamics.

Charlie So, you found that in part through the anthroposophical world, and in part through your artistic practices.

Ashton Yeah, gradually. I sort of had an aversion to Steiner when I first encountered him. I think many people experience this when they first encounter Steiner. There’s so much confidence in what he presents that it’s almost intimidating or repelling to our modern conditioning – especially if we’ve been through academia. But yes, it was really when the pandemic first broke out that I started opening to it more. But there was a kind of ambivalence, which, for me as Westerner, is connected with the inheritance of the colonial legacy.

Charlie I can understand that, coming from America as well. I don’t know if the older generations in the anthroposophical world have that critical self-awareness of the troubled legacy of Europe within history and the world today that we in the younger generations do. Anyway, tell us more about your work today! Give us a little introduction to your projects.

Ashton Alright, thanks for asking. So, I recently started this project that I call ‹Also Known As›. I took a break from the whole social media world for a couple of years – this world that we as millennials have both grown up with – but, with the recent hubbub over NFTs, the metaverse, etc., I became more interested in it again, especially because I started to think differently about identity. I call this project ‹Also Known As› because it skirts any name that would constrain it, allowing me the freedom to let it grow constantly into new experiments. And it’s also a kind of commentary on our post-identity world, a development in social media where there are so many anonymous avatars. On Twitter, for example, people create accounts of dead philosophers, you know, tweeting quotations from their books. But I also think that this notion of the digital avatar creates some interesting detachment from the performance of our regular identity, which I think Facebook has really pushed on people – this access requirement insisting that you have to use your ‹real› name, and there developed this hypertrophic performativity around the identity that you have in everyday life – with ‹influencers›, for example. Before Facebook, people were much more artistic in their self-expression online, say, on MySpace for example. Identity was more fluid and less about advertisement.

Charlie It became an identity politics whirlwind nightmare.

Ashton That dimension, and also this sort of curation of a persona that one is selling as a product but it’s still under the given name in the ‹real world› – it’s like an expansion of celebrity culture to the every-day person. And this notion of ‹post-identity› is sort of pushing that a little further into absurdity, a trickster-move. So today there’s this detachment from the everyday personality such that we feel more creative agency, more of a capacity to radically reshape ourselves. Obviously, there is some privilege in this capacity – not everyone has the means to do so. This is also expressed in the whole development around gender. Now there’s this sense of being able to, or wanting to have, creative agency over even the body in a really radical way. And I think that is pointing to something that Steiner and Barfield and others talked about, how in the 20th century and into the 21st, humanity would be unconsciously crossing the threshold into the spiritual world and there would be a gradual resurgence of an awareness of the etheric, which – through the power of imagination – comes with a loosening from the mineral body. We’re experiencing ourselves from a standpoint that supersedes the embodied personality, as when you design and then maneuver a character in a video game, you have this sort of remove.

Charlie The capacity to objectify ourself, our body, to see it from almost a third person perspective – this was suggested by Steiner in ‹How to Know Higher Worlds›. The body and identity become something you can sort of play, like an instrument, imagining possibilities of engagement with the world. And sort of lessening the hold of the body, of materiality, reality becomes more fluid and etheric or astral, or even our ‹I› can become reinforced with the freedom to create and play.

Ashton Yeah, exactly! So, ‹Also Known As› as a shape-shifting avatar is a rejection of conflating oneself too strongly with the performance of the everyday-self – especially when treated as a product to be sold, as with influencers – and instead an embrace of the freedom to be different characters, to be irreverent, reverent – to be a trickster. That’s also partially what I’m doing with a character I’m calling ‹Vulcanus› in this speculative fiction project that I just started called ‹Lunar Return›, through which I’m imagining a future time Steiner describes in certain lecture cycles wherein the moon returns, which, to the everyday person is just absolutely crazy – that the moon will one day return! We don’t tend to think much about things like that.

I also do a weekly YouTube livestream on the ‹Calendar of the Soul›. I translate the verses for each week and make a little animated video, a multimedia translation – a collage of the translated verse with color, animation, a gleaming brooch from the manga series ‹Sailor Moon›, and songs from other musicians; they’re like screensavers, or GIFs, always less than 5 minutes – and then on Saturday mornings I interpret the verse and situate our moment in cosmic space and cosmic time. I was inspired to do this after taking a Foundations in Anthroposophy course in the Bay Area during which we read the ‹Calendar of the Soul› verses each week, and I just really loved it. I felt like it was an acoustic technology for tuning ourselves to the annual process, this cosmological process – a phenomenological deepening of my extant astrological imagination. So, I wanted to continue doing that. My intention is to facilitate others in developing an imaginative perception of this process as I grow into my own experience of it. I attempt to situate where we’re at in cosmic space and cosmic time, to consider where the moon is in the lunar cycle and show these animations that I’ve collected of the earth in cosmic space in relation to the sun and their annual dance, and also the apparent movement of the sun from the point of view of being on earth that it traces – a lemniscate!

Charlie I want to ask you about the sort of affirmative, creative use of technology and also how that leads into these sort of solarpunk or lunarpunk imaginings that are in vogue today. What sort of aesthetic are you going for, and how does anthroposophy inform that?

Ashton Totally. Well, I’m not an expert on solar or lunarpunk, but they are both aesthetic genres of imaginative speculation about the future. I think of American author Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) when I think speculative fiction – there’s an activist dimension to imaginative fiction about the future. Lunarpunk is a totally new thing – it’s sort of implicit within solar. Solarpunk, at least according to some people, is this speculative meme-aesthetic that has been articulated in contrast to cyberpunk – they are like polar extremes. Cyberpunk is also quite popular right now and emerged out of the late eighties and nineties historical context, arising especially out of Japan and the U.S. in anime and movies like ‹Akira› and ‹Ghost in the Shell› as well as ‹Blade Runner›, where there’s this presentation of a future that’s dystopian and features an almost demonic takeover of autonomous machines that have become emancipated from human beings and just basically run the world through a dead logic that reduces human freedom – transhumanist themes are very prevalent here. So, cyberpunk is this imagination of people resisting that, or capitulating to it, and it’s a kind of dismal aesthetic, whereas solarpunk is a bright imagination of the future where there’s more collective solidarity and a utopian vision of technology and nature being more harmonious and where we have courageously confronted the ecological crisis and have had some minor successes, ever striving for utopia. There’s this term that’s really popular right now – biomimicry: technology and design that attempts to learn from and work with the cycles of nature rather than exploiting it exclusively through the machinations of the abstract intellect. Solarpunk is all about biomimicry.

Lunarpunk is more of subgenre of solarpunk – an aesthetic featuring colors of the night, bioluminescence, a moodier look, as well as an emphasis on the individual and less the collective, but still within a context of collective solidarity-utopianism. It also introduces a bit more conflict because some people see solarpunk as a bit too ‹sunny› – ha! Lunarpunk also features the exploration of spirituality and magic and the occult. Lunarpunk in particular is what partially inspired my ‹Lunar Return› speculative fiction project, riffing on this notion of etheric technology that Steiner spoke of – spiritualized technology, ‹moral› technology – as well as the return of the moon.

Charlie I see a lot of value in creating new imaginations of how humanity can interact with technology. Even within the tech world, a lot of people are seeing this as turning into something dystopian. But rather than totally rejecting technology, how can we use the imagination to create images and live into a potential possible future that is something more harmonious?

Ashton Steiner emphasized the importance of being conscious of Ahriman. He describes the future incarnation of Ahriman as a necessity, and that there’s this technological superstructure unfolding that is laying the foundation for his arrival. We have to be conscious throughout this process, not totally lose ourselves in it, because this development is part of human evolution itself. Barfield traces the metamorphosis of word meanings as a way of looking at the evolution of consciousness. It’s like tracing the footprints; and he shows how the etymology of words like ‹mechanism› or ‹mechanical› and ‹machine› initially had meanings that conveyed our embodied negotiation of the world. And gradually those words were then used to describe the cosmos at large – the clockwork universe. This coincides with the emergence of a more detached, and more manipulative, relation to the universe – what Barfield describes as the gradual «loss of participation.» And then we started to use the words to describe ourselves – the brain is nothing more than a complex computer! I mention this metamorphosis to convey how ineluctably we are bound up with our machines, how our words for them arose out of our own embodied experience in primordial times – they are not separate from the human and they are not neutral either; our technologies are always inscribed with biases and intentions, and some of those intentions are paradoxically destructive to our humanity – this is where Ahriman comes in.

Another philosopher who I think must have been familiar with Steiner’s work, Jean Gebser, talks about technology in his book ‹The Ever-Present Origin› in a very similar way. He says our technologies are really projections of our own capacities and they become detrimental to the extent that we don’t retract the projection soon enough. So, for example, most of the technologies that we’re working with today reflect our conquering of space, and, increasingly, of time. I’m in Sebastopol, California, and you’re in Dornach. We’re able to connect right now on Zoom because these technologies have allowed us to overcome the time-space separation. This is probably the essence of the metaverse, regardless of whether we use virtual reality or not – so it’s been around for a while, growing year by year into the most intimate corners of our lives. But anyway, it’s not that technology is bad. Gebser says the projection of these capacities through the creation of technologies can serve to awaken us to our latent capacities. And I think that’s part of the significance of this notion of the metaverse, which we might connect with the etheric and imaginative consciousness – becoming free from space, loosened from the physical body. And so I think that part of adjusting our relationship to technology is to recognize how intrinsic it is to our humanity and our evolution. What is the metaverse? The metaverse is this extra layer of reality that connects people around the world and presents the appearance of endless creativity, and also a kind of detachment from the everyday self. Could that potentially awaken us to our capacity to develop an awareness of that – the etheric – in a way that isn’t contingent on these material technologies? Technologies reflect our awareness of different layers of reality.

Charlie My initial reaction, which I don’t think is out of the ordinary in the anthroposophical world, is one of fear about the metaverse, of people sort of losing themselves in this realm, which I have actually done many times! I tell people sometimes that I grew up on the internet, in that generation – that was just what we did, especially in suburban America, where we didn’t have really strong communities. Reflecting on my own experience, I do recognize that I really found myself in part through the sort of imaginative play, in particular video games, which produced reflections of my soul that are still resonant today. I definitely see that possibility in the metaverse, that technologies are advancing such that they can stimulate creativity and artistry. I guess the wariness is when there is not also space taken away from it, and this is the case for social media in general where we’re getting totally sucked into it. Even though there are entrancing images that speak to this, we’re not in control. I think this is also the fear that a lot of people have, both within and outside of the anthroposophical world about technology.

Ashton I think it’s a real danger. To connect back to what I was referencing, Gebser’s saying that technology is a kind of projection that necessitates an eventual retraction – this retraction doesn’t mean technology has to go away. It’s just that the retraction involves a reorganization, a reprioritization, basically, a different way of relating to technology that reflects a deeper understanding of what the human being is. If we all possessed the capacity for imaginative knowing, the digital metaverse might then seem superfluous and take on a different role. Anyway, there’s this great article on this website called Zora Zine about how Facebook tried to slyly change its name to Meta to basically monopolize on this emerging notion of the metaverse and become the invisible background infrastructure for it. So, one of the dangers of this metaverse and this increasing immersion in the digital sphere is the fact that it is being controlled largely by corporate interests that want to make people addicted and farm people’s attention.

So yes – I think the danger is that people may become mired in this projection as a kind of ‹second life› or digital sub-nature, rather than using their imaginations to perceive the supersensible behind the appearances of the material world. The issue of abdicating our creative imagination is currently coming to the surface especially among artists and intellectuals concerned about AI and the generation of art and writing.

Charlie You can just wave your hand and it’s done.

Ashton Yeah. And I think there’s value in that depending on what our ends are, but if it results in the atrophy of our own capacities for imagination, then we’re becoming enslaved to it. And it’s not actually a true, living imagination as some people like to think, it’s a regurgitation based on a set code and what already exists on the internet – so there’s a deadened character to the process. Still wonderfully fascinating though – how the AI image generators pull from so much visual information on the internet – as if reshuffling the image-history of humankind! Whereas ‹we› can bring our ‹living› imaginations to the images that are produced. So, I think there’s this potential to awaken, with this projection that we call the metaverse, to our imaginative participation in the world-etheric.

Charlie It’s when we don’t take the positive imaginations back into the real world that we have lost the game.

Ashton Yeah. I think this picture of Michael and the dragon is a really great way to talk about this. You know, this negotiation with the technological dragon-assemblage. This is at least one expression of combat with the dragon. Lisa Romero talks about relating to technology in that way, where it’s not just a rejection, but a courageous confrontation with the encroachment of these technologies as the foil which elicits our latent capacities and strengthens them. If we completely avoid technology we might just be going in the other direction, the Luciferic extreme. Steven Talbott, in this book called ‹The Future Does Not Compute›, which he wrote in the nineties during the initial computer hubbub, was thinking with Barfield about these issues. And Barfield says in ‹Saving the Appearances›, when he’s talking about the time prior to the loss of participation, that we can discern the last remnant of it (in Europe at least) in the consciousness of medieval times. Particularly their experience of space, not empty and full of objects, but like a garment that one wore – an experience of oneself, including one’s own body, as if one were wearing a garment – the whole world, one’s body included – worn as a ‹garment›! Rather than being on a ‹stage› where you’re acting things out in empty space. And Steven Talbott suggests that perhaps virtual reality, or what we are calling the metaverse, could potentially awaken in us once again a felt experience once of wearing the world like a garment – but in a more individuated way, with more detachment and the potential for freedom. Or not. I guess that’s what’s at stake.

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