Archive for the ‘Emerging Visions’ Category

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Fans, Hackers, and Invisibles

on January 1, 2014 in Emerging Visions | Comments Off on Fans, Hackers, and Invisibles

After posting the previous entry, I kept thinking about the association between horizontalism and creative imagination, and it struck me that the roots of this association can be found in the subculture that grew up around science fiction in the 1930s and early 40s.

When the horizontalism vision was taking shape in the 1930s, science fiction fandom was one of its earliest manifestations. In an era dominated by top-down mass media, fandom was bottom-up, peer-to-peer, and free of any kind of centralized leadership. It was a functioning anarchy in everything but name, being carried on by amateurs who were held together solely by a commonality of interests.

As summarized by Wikipedia, “Science fiction fandom started through the letter column of Hugo Gernsback’s fiction magazines. Not only did fans write comments about the stories — they sent their addresses, and Gernsback published them. Soon, fans were writing letters directly to each other, and meeting in person when they lived close together, or when one of them could manage a trip. In New York City. David Lasser, Gernsback’s managing editor, nurtured the birth of a small local club called the Scienceers, which held its first meeting in a Harlem apartment on December 11, 1929.”

These early relationships flowered over the next decade into an extensive network of clubs, fanzines, and conventions, climaxing with the grandly-named First World Science Fiction Convention in 1939.

Read the rest of this entry »

Pagan Anarchism

on December 21, 2013 in Emerging Visions | Comments Off on Pagan Anarchism

In between my forays into the remoter reaches of prehistory, I like to keep an eye on current events for signs of significant transitions. It seems that one such transition is upon us now, as indicated by the fact that “economic populism” — or “economic justice” or “social justice” — has become the hot new buzzword of the moment.

Four years ago, the issue of inequality was not even on the table. Two years ago, it was being pushed only by those noisy folk down at Occupy Wall Street. But now it is something that even the elites and makers of opinion are having to recognize.

That’s not just a switch in the zeitgeist. It’s a sign that we’re at a crucial turning point in the cycle of visions where the horizontalism vision starts to attract mainstream attention.

If the pattern that I worked out last spring holds true, we’re about to see horizontalism — like holism in the late 60s and early 70s — become the focus of a tug of war between established interests looking for practical solutions and the wild romantics and radicals who have been nurturing the vision for the last several decades.

The ultimate outcome of that struggle will be a split between a “safe” version of the vision on one hand and a more dangerous and mystical version on the other. However, that split will remain latent for the next dozen years or so. In the meantime, I see nothing wrong with getting as many tangible benefits as we can out of this window of opportunity when the elite are running scared and willing to make concessions.

Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve spent most of the last year wrestling with one specific question: how the cycle of visions began and what keeps it going. I sometimes wonder whether I’ve become too narrowly obsessed with this one issue, but I don’t see any way past it. My goal is to present a coherent theory of human history, not just an eccentric set of speculations, and for that I need a plausible mechanism.

In the previous entry, I hit on something I think is very important — that the birth of the spirit vision came about when the first true shamans found themselves completely alienated from their larger society. To rectify that, and to prove they weren’t crazy, they needed a model of reality that would verify their perceptions and make it possible to communicate them to others.

My initial assumption was that this extreme degree of alienation must have been a one-time-only event, because each new vision since then has emerged from a predecessor of the same type. But as I thought about it, I realized that the same situation arises whenever the romantic aspect of the outsider vision has been marginalized and demoralized to the point where it no longer serves as a vehicle for higher possibility. That leaves its adherents as isolated and unable to explain themselves as any shaman of 250,000 years ago.

Read the rest of this entry »

The most radical implications of W.E. Ritter’s philosophy of “organismalism” could not have been apparent when he published The Unity of the Organism in 1918.

For one thing, there was a crucial vagueness in his assertion that “the organism in its totality is as essential to an explanation of its elements as its elements are to an explanation of the organism.” Was he simply trying to say that science could not understand cells or organs without a recognition of the roles they played in the complete organism? Or did he have something deeper in mind?

Over the next few years, however, both the vocabulary and the concepts of the new philosophy came into sharper focus. By 1926, Jan Smuts had introduced the more streamlined term “holism,” which he defined in the 1927 Encyclopedia Britannica as “the theory which makes the existence of ‘wholes’ a fundamental feature of the world.”

“It regards natural objects, both animate and inanimate, as ‘wholes’ and not merely as assemblages of elements or parts,” Smuts explained. “It looks upon nature as consisting of discrete, concrete bodies and things, and not as a diffusive homogeneous continuum. And these bodies or things are not entirely resolvable into parts; in one degree or another they are wholes which are more than the sum of their parts, and the mechanical putting together of their parts will not produce them or account for their characters and behaviour.”

Ritter was quick to adopt this simpler terminology of wholes and parts. In a book co-authored with one of his students in 1928, he wrote, “Wholes are so related to their parts that not only does the existence of the whole depend on the orderly cooperation and interdependence of its parts, but the whole exercises a measure of determinative control over its parts. … Structurally, functionally, and generatively, they are reciprocals of each other.”

Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve spent the past two weeks battling my way through the book which is considered to be the first expression of holism as a coherent philosophy: W.E. Ritter’s The Unity of the Organism; or, The Organismal Conception of Life (1918). Ritter’s work is generally acknowledged to have set off the flood of holistic writings that appeared over the following decade — but I’m finding it hard to understand just why it made the impact it did.

For one thing, the book doesn’t seem to have much to do with holism as we now know it. For another, it’s not particularly well-written, but is as awkward throughout as its title. I’ve been tempted to conclude that it merely said the right things at the right time to appeal to people who were desperate for any alternative to mechanistic science.

And yet I keep feeling that buried within the clumsy language is a message that is as relevant today as it was a century ago — if we can only tune our ears to catch what Ritter was really saying.

At the present moment, after all, the holism vision has lost much of its original transcendence. It’s in serious need of something that can remind it of its origins and stretch it beyond its present limitations — and how better to do that than by dialing up the radio message from the past that is The Unity of the Organism?

Read the rest of this entry »

In previous entries, I’ve suggested that a counterculture is born when the senior member of a dominant partnership is discredited, the partnership collapses, and the junior member is left demoralized and directionless. As I focus on the development of the holism vision in the early 20th century, however, I’m reminded that the collapse of a partnership is actually an extended and complex process.

For one thing, each dominant partnership undergoes a final revival during the period immediately preceding its collapse. At that time, the intellectual ferment and political turmoil of the “romantic break” die down, the younger visions are pushed to the margins of society, and there is an overwhelming desire for social stabilization and tranquility.

But it’s exactly that desire which leads to disillusionment with the partnership when it fails to make good on its promises of security.

Then, even after the senior vision has failed and brought the partnership down with it, the junior vision does not immediately relinquish its hold on the social consensus. Instead, lacking any external constraints on its authority, it becomes more arrogant and self-willed than ever — and the resulting moral void is what really triggers the start of the counterculture.

This dynamic can be seen on full display at the present moment. An initial crisis — the attacks of September 11 — provided the conditions for a final revival of the democracy-and-chaos partnership in something resembling its classic Reagan-era configuration. In the upshot, however, the Bush administration not only undercut democracy but helped bring on a second and more devastating crisis, the great financial meltdown of 2008.

Read the rest of this entry »

As I’ve been tracing out the history of the chaos vision, I’ve come to a number of conclusions which affect my understanding of the development of the visions in general. Most strikingly, I’ve started realizing that the interactions among visions — which I’ve compared in the past to a Rube Goldberg device because of their seemingly chaotic nature — actually function with the precision and regularity of clockwork.

This comes as a surprise to me — but it probably shouldn’t. Rube Goldberg devices, after all, achieve the illusion of an effortless cascade of random impacts only through an exacting adjustment of angles and timing.

It does mean, however, that instead of viewing each individual vision as being bound from the start upon its own relatively fixed course, I’m going to have to reconceive of the entire system of visions as a single, elaborate piece of machinery whose evolution is subject to constant modification through the ongoing interactions of its parts.

That’s a challenge — so perhaps the best way to start is by pausing, taking stock, and devoting the next several entries to chronicling the various relationships that each vision experiences in the course of its lifetime.

Read the rest of this entry »

I found the previous entry hard to pull together but I couldn’t put my finger on why, so I went ahead and posted it, even though it felt somehow incomplete. But over the new few days, I realized the problem was that I’d been laying out two separate dichotomies — higher knowledge vs. institutionalized knowledge and liberal vs. conservative values — without quite realizing they weren’t the same thing.

At that point, I decided to clarify my own understanding by listing current political factions and the relationships among them. To my surprise, the rough framework that resulted looked like nothing so much as a simplified version of the alignments system of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

In its classic form, the AD&D system is based on two intersecting polarities — good vs. evil and lawful vs. chaotic — with various shades of neutral in between. Liberals, for example, might be defined as lawful good. They’re “good” because they care deeply about altruism and justice and “lawful” because they see government as the most effective means of implementing those values.

Anarchists, on the other hand, could appropriately be described as chaotic good. They’re dedicated to much the same values as liberals, but they regard the institutions of government as an impediment to achieving them. As a result, even though liberals and anarchists have many issues in common, they differ substantially in methods, ultimate goals, and personal style.

Read the rest of this entry »

After I posted the previous entry, Alexei remarked that he’d been impressed by the linked article about people responding to disasters with spontaneous self-organization. That told me I needed to go further into the subject — so here for consideration are the relevant paragraphs from “The Myth of the Panicking Disaster Victim” by Johann Hari:

The evidence gathered over centuries of disasters, natural and man-made, is overwhelming. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organize spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness. They reveal themselves to be better people than they ever expected. …

On April 18th 1906, San Francisco was leveled by an earthquake. Much of the city collapsed, and the rest began to burn. … In San Francisco that week, all the city’s plumbers began — unpaid — to fix the broken pipes, one by one. People organized into committees to put out the fires with buckets and anything they could find. … It had been an incredibly divided city, prone to race riots against Chinese immigrants. But not after the disaster struck. San Franciscans handed out food and clothes to astonished Chinese people. A young girl called Dorothy Day watched her mother give away all her clothes to survivors, and wrote: “While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.”

These descriptions are mesmerizing — but they also raise a host of questions about the complex intersection of politics, human nature, and higher knowledge.

To start with, the response in San Francisco resonates strongly with the anarchist dream of a society run on the basis of everyone pitching in and doing their part. It’s somehow not at all surprising that when Dorothy Day grew up, she became a member of the IWW.

Read the rest of this entry »