OTI Online
Fall 1998

The Resurgence of the Real
Book Review by Mahin Hasibi, M.D.

The Resurgence
of the Real
Body, nature, and Place in a Hypermodern World

by Charlene Spretnak

Addison-Wesley, 276 pages, $22.00

In this well-written, carefully argued and thoroughly researched book, Charlene Spretnak, social critic, feminist, and author of many previous books (among them The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics; Lost Goddesses of Early Greece; and States of Grace), sets out to examine the principal ideological paradigms that underlie the structure of the modern world, and the causes of its most profound problems.

With the self-assurance of an accomplished scholar, she marshals examples and argument from history, politics, sociology, psychology, and economics in support of her thesis that the crisis of disaffection and meaninglessness confronting the old industrial societies, and even the new countries trying to catch up, can be traced to the persistence of certain of the tenets of modernity that have outlived their usefulness -- that aspects of reality denied or ignored by these ideas have emerged to challenge the established order and the reigning world view. Of the fundamental assumptions of modernity, the one Spretnak scrutinizes most thoroughly is the mechanistic model of the cosmos first described by Isaac Newton. According to Spretnak, this view not only reduced the universe to dead matter, mathematically measurable, but also resulted in the notion that humans are no more than biomechanical machines, to be repaired or technically enhanced at will so long as the means are available. As dead matter, nature can be freely exploited, polluted, even destroyed; similarly, without a spiritual dimension, humankind can be viewed simply as homo economicus, with the expectation that nothing more than the proper arrangement of economic endeavors is required to bring universal contentment. Thus, the scientific theory of economics assumes that the impersonal forces of the market will inevitably work to the advantage of society -- and is unable to account for such realities as excessive, unnecessary consumption, the dislocation of workers, and the loss of local control over production, which have resulted in the material impoverishment of many communities.

Another essential ideological element of the modern world is the conception of the nation-state as the most rational, the most efficient and, therefore, the most legitimate unit of power. As a consequence of this idea, "national" borders established by the victors of the world wars and by the colonial powers have been respected; within these borders, violence is condoned or tolerated, while ancient nations and ethnic groups are divided and disenfranchised. No wonder that traditions, a sense of belonging to a place, and the desire to be left alone have played such an important role in the overwhelming majority of the regional wars and local armed conflicts that have broken out since the end of the second world war.

Of the many examples the author cites to demonstrate the inadequacy of the scientific and technical assumptions of modernity, none is more eloquent than this quotation from a speech given in 1994 in Philadelphia by the once-dissident playwright and post-communist president of the Czech Republic,Vaclav Havel: "We may know measurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet it increasingly seems that they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us. The same thing is true about the nature of ourselves. The more thoroughly all our organs and their functions, their internal structure and the biochemical reactions that take place within them, are described, the more we seem to fail to grasp the spirit, purpose and meaning of the system that they create together and that we experience as our unique self."

In providing a framework for understanding what ails modern society -- where the undeniable benefits of science and technology have left off and their destructive consequences have begun to dominate -- Spretnak cautions against uncritical acceptance of claims of "national sovereignty" and the proclamations concerning the "sanctity" of borders that are frequently issued by central governments busy destroying some ethnic group within them. Likewise, she urges profound skepticism in the face of the repeated assurances on the part of the powers that be that globalization of trade will, in the long run, enrich individuals and enterprises other than large corporations and the men who control them. It is of special interest that the book ends on a positive note. Spretnak reports enthusiastically on the expanding awareness of the interdependence of human beings, nature, and culture as reflected in holistic beliefs and practices, which stress the necessity of integrating intellect, spirit, and wisdom in the service of the individual. She chronicles the constructive efforts of diverse groups to counteract the effects of the denial of modern reality, be it as "green" activists protecting the earth's ecology, or as women in villages in Africa and India who are setting up cooperatives to improve their economic condition. With its comprehensive bibliography and informative index, The Resurgence of the Real is a fine, readable source for understanding many of the themes of contemporary social analysis.

Reviewed by Mahin Hassibi, M.D., professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York, and medical director of Choices Mental Health Center in New York City.

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