Archive for the ‘Dance of the Visions’ Category

I haven’t posted any new entries for the last two years, because the two I wrote immediately after Trump was elected offered my best projections for what was to come and I felt I had nothing more to add. But events have continued to move on, the crisis that grips us grows more acute, and it appears to be time for an update.

This blog has been devoted to laying out a theory of human history and culture as structured by a succession of competing visions of the fundamental nature of existence. These visions develop according to a cyclical process in which each one begins as vague mystical intimations that gradually take on greater definition and public visibility. In a second phase, the vision acquires sufficient authority to influence worldly affairs on a practical level. And every vision ends by degenerating into an ideology of power that must be challenged and overthrown by younger and still uncorrupted alternatives

Much of this process is slow and incremental, but the moments of challenge and replacement always represent a sharp break that occurs during a time of extreme turmoil. During these transitions, the social consensus that prevails as long as most people share a common understanding of how the world works gives way to conflict and fragmentation, and the effects can be painful to endure.

At such times, society falls prey to violence, a loss of shared values, and a pervasive sense of despair. And yet these are also times of deep spiritual renewal. They end with the rejection or radical reformulation of the corrupted oldest visions, while newer visions that offer fresh solutions to the most urgent problems of the day take over the leadership of society and begin to restore stability.

We are reaching the climax of such a changeover period right now. We were in its earliest stages in 2009-11, when I created this blog and began writing about Occupy Wall Street and other hints of a shift in attitudes. We were just entering the phase of maximum turmoil two years ago, when I wrote those most recent entries. And in the last few months we have moved closer to overt conflict, as the increasingly authoritarian impulses of the declining visions have become focused on crushing the threats to their authority posed by those that are on the rise.

At the present moment, my Facebook feed is dominated by three types of posts. The first type features the latest horror stories about how Trump is attempting to dismantle accepted democratic norms and deregulate everything — interspersed with school shootings, fascist provocations, and police brutality. The second category combines hand-wringing over the prospect of environmental doom with hopeful signs of change and promising alternatives. And the third, which serves as a respite from the other two, primarily offers wordless images of a more peaceful and spiritually nourishing world.

All three categories represent different aspects of the current transition. The horror stories reflect the collapse of the partnership between two long-established visions that has shaped our society for the last forty years. One is the venerable democracy vision that has guided the United States since its founding. And the other is the hyper-individualistic chaos vision, which began as a call for personal empowerment but has now decayed into a justification for the absolute freedom of powerful interests from any kind of government control.

The hopeful alternatives come from an alliance between the younger and more dynamic holism and horizontalism visions, an alliance reflected in demands for a “Green New Deal.” The holism vision expresses a perception of nature as consisting of spontaneously self-organizing communities that benefit all their participants. And the horizontalism vision seeks to apply the same perception to human society, offering collective action and mutual support as an alternative to the competitive, winner-take-all systems endorsed by both democracy and chaos.

But it’s the wordless images that I find most intriguing. They evoke the still ineffable intimations of the creative imagination vision, which is younger than both holism and horizontalism and is the direct successor to the chaos vision as an understanding of human nature. And the message they convey is that we humans are not fundamentally primitive, violent, and self-serving, as the chaos vision would have it, but are defined by our creativity and our ability to imagine a world of wonder and then bring it into being.

Holism, horizontalism, and creative imagination will shape our future for the next fifty years. But first we have to get through the terror and dismay of the present moment. And to aid in that passage, I’d like to refer to some of my entries from 2009-10, written when we were just entering the current period of crisis, as a way of offering a broader frame of reference.

In a post from 2009 titled The End of an Era, I reflected on the then-ongoing financial crisis as a sign of “the coming collapse of the democracy-and-chaos partnership.” I wrote that “the final years of a declining partnership are often an anxious and troubled time, but the phase of active renewal is triggered only when the partnership grows so out of touch that instead of meeting crises effectively it becomes a source of epic failure. A profound disillusionment then sets in, and the culture enters an extended period of radical questioning and revaluation.”

That point of epic failure and radical questioning is precisely where we are right now. However, we need to recognize that the revaluation will not automatically be for the best. In that same entry, I offered the onset of World War I as an example of epic failure but also noted that “the period which followed, from roughly 1915 to 1933, was a time of painful disenchantment, heretical notions, and frantic speculation. By the time it was over, most of Europe had fallen into a deep funk of decadence and despair that laid the groundwork for the rise of fascism.”

I went on to suggest that the United States had been immune to the worst of that despair because it had been less invested in the imperial dreams that led up to the war. This enabled it to survive the collapse of the European world-system with its ideals intact and eventually paved the way for American cultural and military dominance after World War II.

But which of those two positions is the United States in this time round? Are we so attached to the late twentieth century era of American hegemony that we will be crushed in the wreckage when that era ends? But in that case, what peoples or cultures will thrive in our place? I frankly don’t see any good candidates at the moment, none that display the exuberant self-confidence that characterized the U.S. on the eve of World War I, but I keep looking.

I took up the same themes again a few months later, in a post from 2010 titled Democracy Inverted. There I discussed the Watergate crisis of 1972-76, when the democracy vision underwent the same kind of breakdown the chaos vision is undergoing right now.

I quoted President Jimmy Carter’s speech of 1979, in which he stated, “I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy. … It is a crisis of confidence … that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” But I also noted that Carter’s proposed solution of consuming less and turning down the thermostats did nothing to restore confidence in democracy. And I suggested this was why he lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan, who promoted a dream of continuing American greatness that I summarized as based on “a radical redefinition of democracy — one in which it was seen not as a system of government, but as a guarantee of freedom from government.”

Reagan’s ideal of freedom from government managed to restore the wounded democracy vision by linking it to the younger chaos vision, which was just coming off its high point in the 1960s counterculture. The result was a stable partnership that reinvigorated democracy while smoothing out the rough edges of chaos. But as I went on to comment, “In the long run, Reagan’s small government rhetoric has served to justify a radical enhancement of government power in the name of ‘freedom,’ combined with a reckless agenda of tax cuts and deregulation which has resulted in an upward redistribution of wealth to the already wealthy while exploding the federal deficit.”

That was my final observation at the time, but what I would add now is that we should take the events of the 1970s as a cautionary tale for where we may find ourselves in another five or ten years. For one thing, Carter’s mistake was that he attempted to link the democracy vision to the still-emerging holism vision, which was not yet sufficiently mature to bear that weight. In the same way, we should be aware that the hyper-individualism of the chaos vision will have to be tamed by subordinating it to the planet-saving concerns of holism, while the utopian collectivism of horizontalism remains a still-emerging dream.

But we also have to beware of Reagan’s error, which was to frame his fusion of democracy and chaos in a way that pandered to a regressive agenda of national greatness while suppressing the nascent stirrings of holism and horizontalism that had emerged strongly at the end of the 1960s. There are already potential fusions of chaos and holism (most notably eco-fascism) that would follow Reagan’s course in an ever more toxic manner. And the only way I see past that is to start thinking of the chaos vision as something that can and must be redeemed and to consider how that might best be done.

More to come…

Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

One thing that has frequently struck me about the cycle of visions is that certain events seem to be predetermined while others take place in a realm of indeterminacy where anything can happen.

Right now, we’re at a moment where both are true. The two oldest of the current visions have run out of options as they fall into a vortex of irreversible decay and repression. The two that follow are becoming caught up in a scenario of resistance that is equally inevitable in its broad strokes, although they still have the ability to adapt to circumstances and define their own moral and political stances. And meanwhile the newest of the visions, those which are still emerging from the shimmering uncertainty of non-existence, are free to make everything up for the first time.

Since I did my last entry two months ago, events have been rushing towards a foreordained conclusion with breathtaking speed. The battle lines have been drawn and the players are taking up their assigned roles — some as villains, some as heroes, and some as sacrificial victims.

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Facebook has recently been serving up clothing ads in my sidebar, and though I’m not a potential customer, I take an interest in such things because fashion is a handy way of tracking the transitions in the cycle of visions that I’ve been detailing at this blog.

So I clicked through and what leaped out at me was how similar many of the styles were to those of 1968-69. There were the same free-floating shifts and tunics and smocks, all of them designed to conceal the natural curve of the waist and hips. And there were also a few extremely full-skirted items that have the same effect.

This is significant. Though I’ve never fully deciphered the fashion cues that go along with each phase of the cycle, I do know that styles like these invariably appear at a moment when all the familiar “grownup” solutions to current problems have failed. They evoke an adolescent appearance — in contrast with the more womanly silhouette that prevails at other times — and seemingly represent an attempt to summon up the fluidity and openness to alternatives of the adolescent brain.

That’s exactly the kind of crisis we’re in right now, and we need all the innovative solutions we can get.

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I’ve been getting kind of bored with what I’ve been posting lately, which is why I haven’t added anything in several months. I’ve kept starting entries and then trashing them because they were too abstract and intellectual to hold even my own interest.

Part of the problem has been that since last spring we’ve entered one of those transitions where everything stable and familiar falls apart and the active visions undergo a transformation that will set up the ruling assumptions of the next forty or fifty years. When something like that happens, everything else seems trivial by comparison.

Moments like these represent unique points of indeterminacy in the cycle. During prolonged periods of stability, the visions unfold in a way that is largely predetermined. But when the world is in flux, multiple paths spread out before us and a choice of futures is possible. And then we select just one, and the others go back into the box of might-have-been and someday-maybe.

However, this indeterminacy applies only to the newest visions. The older ones, which have long since lost their own capacity for creative innovation, will merely be reshaped by the impact of those that are younger and more dynamic.

The two oldest of the current visions — democracy and chaos — will fare the worst. The partnership between them, which has provided the consensus norms of our society since the 1970s, is in a state of collapse due to its inability to resolve the financial meltdown of 2008. And the democracy vision in particular, which has been hollowed out by rampant corruption and inequality, has suffered a loss of legitimacy from which it will never recover.

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I’ve been reviewing the previous entry and I think the way is finally clear to move forward.

As I suggested there, the transformation vision appears to have gone through a very rudimentary form of the cycle. It was born at a time of crisis when mastery of fire and other basic technologies became essential to human survival. It helped resolve that crisis but then subsided back into supporting the existing order.

The kinship vision was born during a succeeding crisis — say around 400,000 years ago — when our survival was enhanced by peaceful interactions among scattered human groups. But before it too subsided, it formed a strong philosophical bond with the transformation vision. This led to the older vision’s observations of the natural world being organized according to a schema modeled on the male-female dualities of the kinship vision: fire-water, drought-rain, day-night, and so forth.

Around the same time, the human brain was undergoing a final expansion and reconfiguration to meet the cognitive demands of remembering and categorizing large amounts of information. And as it did, it became wired in a radically new way that involved cross-connections and long-distance associations of a sort that were not present in any other member of our family tree.

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I’ve been stuck for the past several months and haven’t done any new entries, but I’ve finally realized that I took a left turn at Albuquerque last summer and it’s been throwing me off ever since.

For anyone who’s just now dropping in on the discussion, my chief focus at this blog has been to lay out a theory of human history as driven by a sequence of differing visions of the nature of existence. Some aspects of that sequence are easy to identify. I can point to the visions currently at work in our society, and I can trace earlier visions back through history. But it’s never been clear to me just how the sequence would have first gotten started or how the intricate dynamic that keeps it going could have been set in motion.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve made some progress on that question. I’ve discovered that the dynamic behind the visions operates on two distinct levels. The visions themselves are intellectual constructs that combine the best knowledge of the time with a mystical sense of ultimate oneness. And because our best knowledge changes from era to era, new visions are born, gain cultural influence, then decay and lose coherence, and are finally discarded as unworthy.

But there is also a deeper instinctual rhythm that regulates the timing of this rise and fall, and that rhythm barely changes from one era to the next. It repeats over and over in a cyclical manner, with almost identical moods and attitudes recurring at the same point in every cycle, regardless of the specific visions involved.

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Here There be Dragons.

That’s an acceptable slogan if all you need is something to decorate the empty corners of your map, but it doesn’t answer the question of what lies beyond. And I’ve got a few dragons in my account of the cycle of visions that I’ve never managed to either work past or confront head on.

One of those involves what happens in the second half of every “romantic break,” when what started off as an opening to fresh possibilities collapses into paranoid hysteria and draconian repression. I’ve always skirted around the weirder aspects of that transition or treated it as a momentary aberration. But in fact it’s a crucial episode in every cycle — and there’s no way to get from the experiences of the first proto-shamans to the birth of the spirit vision without passing through it.

What makes it so hard to describe is that the shamans weren’t just visionaries and storytellers. They were also magicians with the power to alter the reality of those around them. They told stories that combined the stuff of everyday life with the wild, hallucinatory experiences of the mythic realm. They invented new words to describe beings and concepts that had never before been named. And they began to work magic.

Like all magicians since, they often relied on trickery to convince their fellows that they had supernatural powers. That was essential to arts such as healing that were based on suggestion. But sometimes they started to believe in their own tricks. And there were other occasions when their efforts were rewarded with genuinely anomalous events that they themselves could not foresee or control.

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I’ve spent the almost two months since I last posted trying to figure out the birth of the spirit vision — and it’s been slow going.

It’s easy to see how the kinship vision would have been a useful supplement to the original “vision of everything.” If the impulse “to explore strange new worlds” was a defining characteristic of our own species from the very start — as opposed to the more stay-at-home Neanderthals — those early explorers would have needed a framework within which they could interact peacefully with any strangers they encountered. And the simplest way to accomplish that would have been a mutual understanding that we are all ultimately kin, descended from the same long-ago ancestors.

This extension of kinship beyond the limits of motherhood and grandmotherhood would also have proven useful back home. It would have given fathers more of a stake in raising their children. It would have provided the basis for the complex networks of reciprocal obligations among in-laws that typify fully-developed kinship systems. It would have enabled humans to interact more productively with other humans in both good times and bad.

But what would have been the utility of the spirit vision that arose out of the hallucinatory experiences of the first proto-shamans? That’s where I got stuck until I realized that I was looking at things backwards.

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I’ve been rereading my previous entry and finding it not quite to my liking — so I’m going to start over with a clearer version of what I wrote before and work my way forward from there.

For millions of years after our ancestors started walking upright, they remained apelike in their bodies, brains, and behavior. It was not until around 1.8 million years ago, when they left the trees for good and became full-time ground-dwellers, that they took on more recognizably human characteristics.

That was probably when they shifted from an apelike reproductive pattern — in which the dominant males have preferential access to sexually responsive females but take no responsibility for the offspring — to a system of male-female pair-bonding that was more effective at raising slow-maturing, big-brained children.

However, the newer pattern of behavior has never fully supplanted our more primitive instincts. Even today, we put a lot of our energy into dealing with outbreaks of jealousy and violence, and we’re capable of reverting entirely to ape-mode at times of social breakdown. That may be why our most popular forms of entertainment are action movies and soap operas.

But we also have a more sophisticated way of regulating our social interactions, and that is by appealing to higher moral values. The roots of human morality probably go back at least half a million years, since that is when we see the earliest signs of a willingness to care for the old and infirm, a dawning sense of beauty, and a rudimentary capacity for language.

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My last regular entry was something of a proof of concept — an attempt to see if I could deconstruct the cycle of visions as it exists today and retell the story in terms of only the youngest and most transcendent visions.

I wanted to test an idea that’s been growing on me lately — that the youngest visions are what really drive the cycle, while the mature visions play only a secondary role. I also expected to get hints as to what the cycle might have looked like at the outset, when there were no mature visions, and how it might have evolved from there to the complexity we see today.

The experiment was successful enough that I’ve spent the last several weeks pushing my focus further back in time. I’ve been trying to work out what kind of instinctual and emotional apparatus must have been in place even before the cycle of visions began in order to make the cycle possible.

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