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14 December 1996

Thoughts on Defining the New Age

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Comments to Roger Doudna, Findhorn Foundation


In response to your request for comments concerning the "New Age", to "meaningfully distinguish between the various manifestations of this movement", I offer the following -- to be taken with as much salt as you wish!

Over the years I guess we have all thought about this question from different angles -- although the question has lost much of its challenge. I even wrote a poem about it once -- to celebrate my disassociation from it. But, provoked by your question, it seemed useful to explore the possibility that phonetics, grammar, spelling, dyslexia and typographical error offered the best clues to the many understandings of the phrase in practice. From which:

1. One obvious meaning can best be understood by recognizing that for many it is essentially the "Age of the New". So anything new is to be cherished. Anything old is of lesser priority -- subject to replacement or elimination, even through planned obsolescence. The problem is that some of the erstwhile New Agers are themselves now old, and are perhaps dissatisfied with this interpretation which served them so well in the past! Eternal youth advocated when one is young, does not look so convincing when one is older! More pointedly, some are about to be transferred by their children to homes for the elderly.

2. I quite like the implications of "Gnu Age" -- which suggest that the humble gnu might actually have a comeback. Maybe this best summarizes the perspective favoured by deep ecologists.

3. Also interesting is "Knew Age". This draws attention to the sense that many of those involved have been strong in their knowing of what was the truth that they knew back then -- and which others needed to know with their vigorous assistance. Unfortunately, with the passing of time, what was claimed as known has proved less effective in making a difference -- especially to relationships amongst those who knew! As such they may be understood as the disabused, facing their own doubts about the adequacy of old patterns.

4. The possibility of typographical error, or dyslexia, suggests the need to explore "Now Age", and indeed there have been many who have pushed for living in the present moment -- creatively indifferent to the past and the future. There is much mystical literature in support of this view. They have had their problems, as interviews with aging hippies show. Their views have also reinforced some environmental and other difficulties, as ignored by-products continue to accumulate.

5. Also possible is a combination of the last two, namely "No Age". For some this involves the challenges of learning how to say "no" -- to processes which continue to trouble our society. For others it involves a form of systematic negativity -- whether of the critical form, most condemned as criticism for its own sake, or in the less understood form associated with the mystical "via negativa" (Neti Neti, in Sanskrit; "negative capability" as advocated by the poet John Keats). For others again it emphasized that age should not be a factor (as in ageism) -- something that the ageing advocates of this approach have had to struggle increasingly to communicate to the young unemployed. More cruelly it may also come to be understood by historians in the future as the period when people did not grow up, and prided themselves for it.

6. Following through on these permutations, we also have "Know Age". As indicated above, this period has indeed been a time of much "knowing". We may indeed end up being the best informed species headed for extinction! More creatively this could be understood in the light of the motto of the oracle at Delphi as "Know Thyself" -- and many have pursued the learnings associated with this route.

7. But, taking into account an earlier perspective, the delphic "Know Thyself" has also been interpreted by some as "No Thyself" -- and self-negation has indeed been a phenomenon characteristic of many in the "No Age", understood otherwise, although this too is reinforced by many spiritual practices aimed at negating the self.

8. Finally the phrase could also be understood as "News Age", and indeed it has been very much the age of the latest news from all corners of the globe. Governance of countries has become both governance in response to the latest news (short-termism in the extreme) -- as well as governance of the news (news management, censorship and spin-doctoring).

The challenge of the phrase is that whilst some interpretations offer incentives to the generation that first subscribed to it, it is not clear how those that follow can take it on. As with clothes that were new for parents, their kids cannot be expected to want to continue to get some wear out of what may no longer appear fashionable.

Having done "new" for a number of decades, where do we go next?

What's new? What is "post-new"? Re-new? Re-gnu? Re-knew? Re-know? Re-no?


Anthony Judge:

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