There’s so much still to learn, I think to myself. Let’s begin by reading a history of Mexican philosophy. Study the works of Emilio Uranga, Leopoldo Zea, and Luis Villoro. Seek information about the latter’s correspondence with Subcomandante Marcos, a book called La Alternativa. Or, maybe just focus on housing. Rethink Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” Why, in the mid-20th century, does Maslow wish to reintroduce a naturalized hierarchy into the “science of the human”? What were his fears? The hierarchy of needs is one we’re disciplined into by capitalism — so here I am, fretting about how to finance food, shelter, education, transportation. What Marxists call “social reproduction.” What good is a “hierarchy of needs” to a worker? The only truly humanistic psychology is one able to free workers to self-actualize: one that grants them relief from external structures of domination like debt. Is there a psychology of Being that can grant that relief?
“Spiral Dynamics” comes to mind as I listen to “Beautiful Crystals” by Sunwatchers.
The band takes its name from a song by Albert Ayler. Guitars interplay with horns, drums, and synths to form complex patterns. Concentrating on the band’s epic prog-psychedelic freak-outs, consciousness can float around a bit in a wild, hypnotic trance-state, reflections on sound and language intersecting to form brief synesthetic plateau-experiences. Life is mysterious, a bubbly, frothy, rococo garden of love, as one listens. Ever-changing, too—in constant surplus of itself. The band operates in a variety of modes: cosmic-archetypal in their aspirations one minute, urgently political the next. I look forward to seeing them when they play in town next month. Spiral Dynamics, meanwhile, seems to be some sort of West Coast “theory of everything,” popularized by the consciousness theorist Ken Wilber. Abraham Maslow fits in there somewhere in the movement’s origins, his “Hierarchy of Needs” adapted into a full-blown “tiered,” “evolutionary” theory of consciousness. It hasn’t been clear to me upon initial perusal whether or not this theory proposes a corollary ethics or practice, though I assume so. At times it sounds hyper control-oriented and egoic, encouraging practitioners to “sweep away objects” and focus on a prior “I Am,” consciousness in its most abstract and deracinated form—an ever-present, transhistorical “One,” divorced from the particulars of any thought, emotion, or object. Within short order, one finds oneself wondering, “Where is the Other in this model?” Reduced, it seems, to pure Becoming, known only through its momentary modifications, ripples, and arisings. The Other is that which encircles “I Am” as the latter spirals through states of distraction and re-cognition.
Maslow’s ideas influenced the utopian consciousness revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s in a variety of ways beyond the ones I’ve already mentioned. Betty Friedan wrote at length about Maslow in a chapter of her book The Feminine Mystique, embracing his humanistic approach as an alternative to the pessimism of the Freudian paradigm. Yet Maslow’s views regarding women certainly weren’t what we would now recognize as progressive. A woman could only self-actualize and “realize her own potential,” he claimed, “through her husband and children.” His views were shaped by largely unexamined heteronormative, gender-binary assumptions. He remained in all things a centrist, an opponent of the New Left despite an attraction to democratic socialism in his youth. By the time of his greatest influence in the 1960s, he was essentially a New Deal Democrat, fearful of communists, and committed to US victory in the Cold War — a war that was fought in part on college campuses, including those where Maslow worked. Integration, globalization — these were posited and advanced by Maslow and others as solutions to nuclear war. The humanities and the sciences need to synergize, the centrists argued, if we’re to avoid destruction. Let us love each other and teach each other to dance. Yet here we are today, globalized and integrated by digital capitalism, rich waging war on the poor, planet on the verge of catastrophe, fascism waiting in the wings. Might there be other ways for us to put our heads together, both on campus and off, consciousness used to heal rather than curse?
Utopianism acquired a “eupsychian” cast up and down the West Coast of 1950s and 1960s California. Pursuit of the good society became bound up with alchemical transformation, design of new anthropotechnics, and experiments with human potential. Abraham Maslow created a mailing list to connect organizations and individuals participating in these experiments, thus forming what he called the “Eupsychian Network.” The members of this network, he said, shared a “humanistic and transhumanistic outlook on life” (Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 237), by which he meant an orientation that sought to help “the individual grow toward fuller humanness, the society grow toward synergy and health, and all societies and all peoples move toward becoming one world and one species” (237). Already in Maslow, there were hints that the humanistic orientation in the social sciences and the “human potential” movement that arose alongside it might contain a dark side — or at the very least, a potential for misuse. Maslow prepared the manuscript for Toward a Psychology of Being while visiting La Jolla, California, in summer 1961, supported by a financially generous fellowship from the newly founded “Western Behavioral Sciences Institute.” The fellowship was funded by engineer-entrepreneur Andy Kay, who invited Maslow to return the following summer to observe operations at Kay’s company, Non-Linear Systems (Hoffman, The Right to Be Human, p. 246). This collaboration with Kay culminated in Eupsychian Management, a book completed in 1962 and published in 1965. Non-Linear Systems was an electronics manufacturing company. Before founding it in 1952, Kay spent two years working at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. By the early 1980s Non-Linear Systems evolved into Kaypro, manufacturer of an early personal computer. The concept of Eupsychia never fully shed this marriage of convenience with management theory and West Coast tech, though other members of the Eupsychian Network helped to temper these tendencies.
Maslow’s prose is dry and scientific. I keep having to take breaks while reading his book Toward a Psychology of Being. Parts of it seem wrong-headed, presumptuous; I’d rather be reading the poet Robert Duncan. Works of Duncan’s like “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” evoke Neoplatonic realms, scenes made up by powers of consciousness. A force of gravity pulls us near. Duncan calls this force the “Queen Under the Hill.” Her binding us to her in loving embrace allows us to be both one and other. Being self-divides into temporary autonomous zones so as to become that way, consciousness rising up into matter, probing itself with language before returning from which it came. Each being bears witness, Duncan says, before itself standing in judgment. But why judgment, I wonder. Let us resolve to live well, thanking the world for providing us a loving home by providing one in return. Let these trance-scripts be ways of advancing that cause. Let them be merciful rather than cruel. Let us not condemn in our attempt to improve.
I sit beside Sarah at a town pool, the two of us drying in the air after a swim. A small green insect lands on my leg. We consider each other for a few moments, each one absorbing the other’s fear, processing it internally, transmuting it, releasing it back as love. I’m reminded of Maslow’s claim that each of us contains two sets of forces. “One set,” he writes, “clings to safety and defensiveness out of fear, tending to regress backward, hanging on to the past, afraid to grow away from the primitive communication with the mother’s uterus and breast, afraid to take chances, afraid to jeopardize what [one] already has, afraid of independence, freedom and separateness. The other set of forces impels [us] forward toward wholeness of Self and uniqueness of Self, toward full functioning of all [one’s] capacities, toward confidence in the face of the external world at the same time that [one] can accept [one’s] deepest, real, unconscious Self” (Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 46). Pool days are delightful. Look at us, sun-soaked, unfolding outward, discovering new capacities, refining old ones, becoming. The metamorphosis has begun.
Re-reading humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, I find much to like: his re-imagining of well-being in terms of individual and collective “self-actualization,” fulfillment occurring in and through a eupsychian network of co-evolving communities, including communes and growth centers like Esalen. But there are also some terrifying, instrumentalist defenses of “Science,” as when, in the preface to the first edition of Toward a Psychology of Being, he writes, “Science is the only way we have of shoving truth down the reluctant throat. Only science can overcome characterological differences in seeing and believing. Only science can progress” (viii). There’s a lot of genuflecting before terms like “empirical” and “raw facts.” Yet there remains a saving desire for integrated knowledge, knowledge that admits humanity’s creaturely actuality, as well as its god-like potential. Maslow characterizes this latter, “vertical” facet of human personality as a future dynamically active in the present, an absent cause prompting our becoming in a serendipitous manner, as if unplanned. We and the reality around us change subtly day by day.
Out comes Oneida’s Anthem of the Moon, released again into consciousness by the appearance of the band’s logo on an old t-shirt I pull from my dresser and refold while trying to de-clutter my house using the “KonMari Method.” The moon appears again later in the day in the lyrics to a Silver Apples song called “I Have Known Love.” The song is sad and tragic, as if sung by a psychedelic fallen angel, an Icarus or a Prometheus, chastened, having burned his fingers on the sun.