When my son Toby recently proposed that he and a friend interview me as a bonus episode for their comic book podcast, one of his suggested questions was, “Does the rise of superheroes during WWII–their slump thereafter–and their rise again during the cold war corollate with real world events.”

That really confused me. In my own timeline, the Cold War began immediately after World War II. And it would never have occurred to me in the early 1950s, when I was a little kid bouncing off the furniture with an old baby blanket pinned around my neck for a cape and pretending to be Superman, that I was living in the middle of a superhero slump.

But apparently I was. As Toby explained it, there had been a great proliferation of superheroes during the war, but by the time I began reading comics around 1952, they’d been pruned back to just Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. And even those titles weren’t particularly memorable — not compared to Carl Barks’ brilliant Uncle Scrooge stories, which I was reading at the same time. The superhero genre wouldn’t get back on track until 1956, by which time I’d outgrown the kid-oriented comics of the day.

Once I started to think about it, though, a number of things fell into place, and I realized that the answer to Toby’s question had to do with science. After the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, science came to be viewed as a destructive force rather than a savior, and that made science-based superheroes a lot less appealing. Over the next decade, even science fiction backed off from scientific extrapolation in favor of sociological SF, reality trips, and rationalized fantasy.

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With the outcome of this week’s elections in the US, we have moved one step closer to the complete meltdown of the democracy-and-chaos partnership. Not only has the partnership consistently failed to address the economic and environmental crises of the moment, but the two partners are now at one another’s throats.

The Democrats remain bound to the failing democracy vision, even though it is no longer able to produce a viable campaign platform. Meanwhile, the Tea Party Republicans have pledged their souls to the darker side of chaos and seem to be looking forward to dismantling as much of the structure of government as possible.

That’s how these things always go, so there’s no use crying too many tears over it. It’s the process by which every fossilized partnership passes into the dustbin of history. The real challenge of the next few years will be to preserve the health of the planet and its peoples as they come under unrelenting assault from a dying system.

That’s exactly what the adherents of the younger holism and horizontalism visions are already trying to do. But there’s about to be an even younger vision joining the mix and sending things off in a new direction — because as the chaos vision becomes completely unmoored from reality, the creative imagination vision will be set loose to follow its own path.

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Holism Upgraded

on October 25, 2014

We’ve now reached the onset of one of those recurring points in the cycle of visions when all the current visions mutate, realign, and take on new roles. Those changes are going to be extremely interesting to watch as they unfold — both for their own sake and as a real-time experiment in how the visions do what they do.

In the previous entry, I discussed the ongoing collapse of the aging democracy vision, the resulting breakdown of the democracy-and-chaos partnership, and how this has enabled the younger holism and horizontalism visions to take center stage.

Over the next decade or so, each of these four visions is going to move along one step. The democracy vision will fade away, except as an increasingly nostalgic point of reference. The chaos vision will shed its current arrogance and take a back seat to the holism vision in a new dominant partnership that will assume the leadership of society. And once that happens, the horizontalism vision — which will have played an instrumental role in these other changes — will be elbowed aside and forced into the role of the rowdy outsider.

However, all this will take a while, and the chaos, holism, and horizontalism visions will have to go through some painful adjustments along the way. Meanwhile there will be no dominant partnership to stabilize society, so we can also expect the next ten or twelve years to be a time of increasing social and philosophical fragmentation.

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I’ve spent the last five years at this blog laying out a theory of human history as determined by a succession of visions of the nature of existence. But although I have no doubts about the reality of that sequence, I’m still struggling to identify the underlying mechanisms.

I’ve most recently been developing what I think is a plausible scenario for how the earliest visions arose out of the changes in brain organization that first made us human. But that scenario can’t explain why those initial visions should have failed and been replaced by others — or why those others then failed and were replaced in turn, following an amazingly consistent pattern of events.

I’m therefore trying out a new hypothesis which assumes that the mechanisms behind the visions operate on two different levels. On the intellectual level, each vision is elaborated out of a limited set of fundamental premises — comparable to the rules of grammar or the axioms of mathematics — that is believed to explain an entire area of human experience. This produces a tightly woven logical structure which gives each vision a high degree of coherence and enables it to remain intact over an extended period of time.

However, any system that narrowly based can only provide a partial picture of reality. Newborn visions may dazzle us with their ability to tap into areas of experience that have previously been neglected, but as visions age they get stale and over-familiar and start to reveal gaps and weak spots. This is one reason why new visions become necessary.

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Dreams of the Dead

on September 8, 2014

The last time I wrote about the second vision of existence — the kinship vision — I described its emergence in largely practical terms. I suggested that it became necessary when our earliest ancestors, having acquired the useful ability to create mental maps of their surroundings in space and time, began to flourish and spread out in all directions.

As the human community expanded, the kinship vision made it possible for the members of different bands to continue perceiving one another as family rather than as strangers. The Neanderthals never managed that trick, but our own ancestors did. I would guess this occurred around 340,000 years ago, when the ending of an ice age had opened up new territories.

Two elements went into the making of the kinship vision. One was the sense of belonging to a larger whole provided by higher knowledge. The other was a structuring of human relationships using the same mental tools that had previously been applied to the natural world. The basic family roles — mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers — were generalized to encompass more distant relatives. People began assembling mental maps of their own family trees and using those as a basis for action.

At least that’s how I accounted for the origins of the kinship vision two years ago. But at the time, I wasn’t factoring in the underground stream — the magical and occult current of thought that adds an element of the unknown and the uncanny to the otherwise rational and mystical materials of every vision.

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I’ve been trying for several years to come up with a comprehensive explanation of the sequence of visions that has formed the backbone of human history. I’ve never felt entirely satisfied with any of my attempts, but my recent exploration of the interaction between the visions and the romantic and occult materials that I’ve described as the “underground stream” has given me some fresh ideas.

The excavations at Qesem Cave which I mentioned in the previous entry provide a useful starting point. They indicate that as early as 400,000 years ago, the cave’s inhabitants had developed an ability to orient themselves in both space and time. They divided up their living space according to various functions and they had established a production line for making stone blades that reduced the process to a maximally efficient series of steps.

These capacities correspond to what I identified some while back as a uniquely human ability to construct mental maps of the world around us and share those maps with others through a sophisticated use of language.

I further suggested at that time that the visions through which we make sense of existence arise out of those same mental maps, but with an added element of mystery and imagination. The maps are limited to factual knowledge, but the visions go beyond those limits. They combine known and unknown, the familiar places of everyday and the distant realms of story, the world as it is and the world as it might be.

And I concluded that the dual nature of the visions represents our best attempt to reconcile the intellectual approach of ordinary knowledge with the intuitive flashes and mystical intimations of higher knowledge by granting each its own separate domain of applicability.

That conclusion was fine as far as it went, but it never accounted for all the pieces of the puzzle — and now I’m starting to believe the visions must involve not two but three different modes of awareness.

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Much of what I’ve written at this blog has involved tracing out human history in terms of a succession of visions of the nature of reality.

Each of these visions begins as an attempt to account for an entire area of human existence using a limited set of premises and conclusions. Once a vision matures, it expands its scope to become a general philosophy of life, but at the cost of losing much of its inner coherence. The tensions and contradictions this sets up ultimately lead to the birth of a new vision, founded on very different premises, while the parent vision becomes increasingly rigid and intolerant and finally collapses.

At least, that’s the story as I’ve been telling it up to now. I’ve tended to treat the visions as a closed system, with each one being influenced by visions drawn from other areas of experience but not by anything outside the system. I’ve occasionally speculated that there must be an outside factor which launched the cycle of visions in the remote past and has since kept it in motion, but I haven’t ever managed to pin down just what that might be.

Since last winter, however, I’ve been examining what I’ve called the “underground stream” — a persistent current of occultism and magical thinking that is cruder and less intellectual than the visions but also more idealistic and romantic — and I’m coming to believe that could be my missing X factor.

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I’ve spent the past several entries trying to pin down the relationship between the simple, straightforward visions of reality that I’ve been discussing at this blog for the last several years and the much murkier and more elusive “underground stream.”

The visions are relatively easy to define, since each one is organized around a limited set of premises and conclusions designed to relate a particular area of practical experience — scientific, social, or personal — to a mystical sense of oneness.

The underground stream, in contrast, has no firm philosophical structure, but it does display certain persistent characteristics. The most obvious is a tendency to perceive existence in terms of occult forces: magical or psychic powers, a world in which invisible spirit beings or unsuspected aliens surround us on every hand, and conspiracies both sinister and benign. It also has a distinctive emotional tonality which ranges from mistily dreamlike to lushly romantic to darkly paranoid.

However, there are times when the visions and the underground stream are so closely aligned that they appear as two sides of the same coin.

One recent example would be the use of the word “cyberpunk” in the 1980s. On one hand, the “cyber” part can be seen as referring to the holism vision, in which networks of all sorts are considered the fundamental units of reality, while the “punk” part evokes the streetwise, anarchic aspect of the horizontalism vision. But it would be equally true to say that “cyber” speaks to the magical dreamscapes of cyberspace and “punk” to the genre’s conspiratorial, film noir ambiance.

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The Chasm

on May 21, 2014

Every entry here since the first of the year has been directed towards resolving a single problem — but I’ve started feeling lately that I’m losing focus and need to pause and take stock.

I began with what seemed like two simple assumptions. First, that much of today’s world is the product of certain far-reaching cultural changes that occurred in the 1940s. Second, that science fiction and SF fandom were strangely central to those changes.

As soon as I began to unpack these assumptions, however, I found myself wrestling with the nature of the deep, mystical current that I’ve described as the underground stream. And at every step since, what I thought would be a simple undertaking has become increasingly complex, to the point where it seems necessary to step back and gain a broader perspective.

The best starting place may be with the deep philosophical chasm that currently runs through the heart of American society. It’s generally described as a split between conservatives and liberals, but it’s better perceived as a division between those who fear change and those who embrace it.

The roots of that split go back to the early 1940s, when a major shift in attitudes and alignments was being forged in the crucible of World War II. The right was busy dissociating itself from fascism, the left was putting distance between itself and communism, and both groups were adjusting to the prospect of a postwar world in which the United States would be a dominant global power.

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The underground stream is always present, always speaking to us across the full range of human experience. However, the mature visions normally drown out its voice. They act as a kind of control valve that causes us to dismiss the magical assumptions of the underground stream as implausible and unfounded.

It’s only when an aging vision starts to falter that the underground stream is able to break through in the specific area covered by that vision. For example, when the reason vision began failing in the 1880s, it provided an opening for unrestrained speculation about the potentials of the human mind.

The successor to reason — the chaos vision — was still very close to its mystical roots then, and its focus on non-rational states of consciousness such as dream, madness, and intoxication was entirely compatible with the raw shamanistic perceptions of spiritualists and occultists.

The idea of psychic abilities, in particular, was considered worthy of serious scientific investigation. When the Society for Psychical Research was founded in London in 1882, it had a range of interests that encompassed everything from thought-transference and mesmerism to spirit mediums and haunted houses. Its mission was “to approach these varied problems without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled science to solve so many problems.”

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