Archive for October, 2009

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
 Your old road is rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
 For the times they are a-changin’.

— Bob Dylan, September 1963

Between the summer of 1964 and the spring of 1965, an incredible number of things happened all at once as the visions began shifting and mutating.

The first upheaval to become widely visible was the student protest movement, which began as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement. The March on Washington in August 1963 — where Bob Dylan performed and which inspired “The Times They Are A-Changin'” — was followed a year later by the Freedom Summer of 1964, when young activists flooded into Mississippi to register black voters and some lost their lives.

That September, the University of California at Berkeley attempted to prevent civil rights advocates from soliciting donations on campus. When one former student was arrested while manning an information table, all hell broke loose. Thousands of students surrounded the police car and kept it from leaving until all charges against the activist had been dropped.

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Although the science-and-democracy vision would dominate Western culture through the 1950’s and into the 60’s, its initial mood of brash optimism had started to fade even before World War II ended in 1945.

The accumulated strain of the war years, the terrifying new reality created by the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the onset of the Cold War all combined to create a mood of apprehension and paranoia. It was at this point that the chaos vision cut loose from the science-and-democracy partnership and became the primary vehicle for expressing dissatisfaction with the dominant culture.

The resulting mixture of chaos and cynicism is clearly visible in film noir, which combined a hallucinatory sense of an unstable and fundamentally treacherous reality with a profound alienation from the corruption and violence of society.

The roots of film noir are to be found in hard-boiled detective novels and German expressionist films of the 1920’s and early 30’s, both of which had embodied certain aspects of the chaos vision. But the genre developed fully only in the 1940’s — and particularly from 1944 on — when it played a central role in depicting the dark side of science-and-democracy.

Film noir was not to everyone’s taste — and there were plenty of other movies in the late 40’s that presented a more positive view of science-and-democracy — but it was far from alone in its expression of a newly independent and alienated chaos vision.

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Since I began this series of entries in early September, the world has moved very quickly — so quickly that intuition tells me I need to cut to the chase right now and leave my more detailed discussion of the emergence of the chaos vision for a later time.

It is becoming undeniable that the financial crisis which began a year ago has enriched the bankers while screwing everyone else. In just the last few weeks, public sentiment appears to have reached some sort of tipping point, and social critics are starting to suggest that our entire system may be fatally flawed.

Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, which premiered on October 2, is dedicated to “questioning whether the whole incentive structure, moral values and political economy of American capitalism is fit for human beings.” And activist Arundhati Roy recently asked, even more pointedly, “Is there life after democracy?”

“The question here, really, is what have we done to democracy?” Roy exclaims. “What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasized into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the free market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit?”

Moore and Roy are rightfully distraught at the damage that free market capitalism has done to Western democracy — but my own perspective is both more apocalyptic and more positive. I see the current state of acute distress as an indication of the coming collapse of the democracy-and-chaos partnership.

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The period from about 1934 to 1945, when the emerging chaos vision was subordinated to the science-and-democracy partnership, provided an essential stage in the new vision’s development.

Prior to 1934, chaos was still very much the rebellious offspring of reason. Even as it rejected all expectations of a rational universe, it remained dependent on those expectations to give structure and purpose to its rebellion.

By the early 40’s, however, the chaos vision had developed its own identity and sense of purpose. These owed nothing to the reason vision but were derived from the most far-reaching implications of the newly-created synthesis of science and democracy.

The nature of the change can be clearly seen in the difference between Warner Brothers cartoons of 1940-41 — which included the first appearances of Bugs Bunny — and Betty Boop cartoons of just eight years earlier.

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The collapse of the reason-and-science partnership around 1915 permanently undercut faith in reason and for a time also weakened belief in scientific materialism. As described in the previous entry, this provided a window of opportunity for the emergence of a successor to the reason vision — what might be called the chaos vision, since it conceived of existence as endlessly in flux and without fixed form or laws.

The period of maximum openness to new ideas lasted until about 1934, when the science-and-democracy partnership began to crystallize. At that point, faith in science was restored and bizarre or dreamlike expressions of chaos fell out of favor.

Betty Boop and the Marx Brothers were cleaned up and made less nihilistic. Supernatural horror waned in popularity, while the far more science-friendly genre of science fiction flourished. Cartoons and comics increasingly pursued realistic artwork and straightforward narratives.

By the late 30’s, Walt Disney had set new standards for visual realism with his first full-length feature, Snow White (1937). Around the same time, a trend towards pulp-style adventure in comic strips and in the new medium of the comic book climaxed with the introduction of Superman in 1938.

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