Archive for February, 2010

Although I’ve been working at understanding the visions for many years, I’ve always tended to focus on the obvious stuff — the fully developed visions that define a culture’s institutions and self-image. This series of entries marks the first time I’ve looked really closely at emergent and proto-emergent visions, and the journey has been full of surprises.

For one thing, I keep discovering that tracing the visions back in time is a lot like falling down Alice’s rabbit-hole. You take a tumble into the abyss and then fall seemingly forever — only to land with a gentle bump at the bottom and find yourself confronted with even greater mysteries.

As I was finishing up the previous entry, for example, I realized that Lewis Carroll was not the only one wrestling with the concept of personhood around 1865-70. He may have taken the philosophical implications to a level of absurdity that no one else would have dared to contemplate, but he was far from alone on the quest.

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As so often seems to happen with this blog, in the course of writing the previous entry I found myself talking confidently about something I’d previously had no inkling of — in this case, the central role played by the concept of “personhood” in the chaos vision. But now that I hear myself saying it, it makes perfect sense.

At the present moment, personhood is a primary moral touchstone of our culture. It defines our most basic values, and questions about precisely who and what can be considered a person lie at the heart of our most heated debates — from abortion to the hunting of whales to the question of whether corporations have a right to free speech.

This position of moral authority goes back to the 1960’s, when personhood was first used to trump the belief of the failing science vision that it was legitimate to treat human beings as objects. The concept of personhood is much older, however. It is as old as the chaos vision itself and is based directly on that vision’s understanding of inner experience.

Simply stated, if you have an inner life — dreams, imagination, self-awareness — you are a person. Without an inner life, you are at best a zombie. And it is the gray areas which generate the arguments.

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I’ve generally been referring to the development of the 1960’s counterculture as if it was all one continuous process. However, it actually consisted of two very different phases, the first extending from 1961 to 1967 and the second from 1968 to about 1976.

The initial phase was dominated by the interaction of two factors. One was the loss of faith in the science-and-democracy partnership that followed the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of John Kennedy. The other was the ongoing realignment of chaos away from scientific materialism and towards holism.

Although they began independently, by 1964 these two factors had begun to interact with one another and create a positive feedback loop. As science-and-democracy collapsed, the science vision was increasingly discredited and its successor, the holism vision, was energized. This shift of cultural energy accelerated the turning of the chaos vision away from science and towards holism, and that in turn provided chaos with the energy and self-confidence to further challenge science-and-democracy.

Every part of this loop was important, but the most pivotal aspect was the rejection of the notion of a mechanistic universe in which nature, society, and even human beings could all be treated as physical objects and manipulated as if in a scientific experiment.

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In the last few years before the 1960’s counterculture found its voice, a dawning sense of the universe as an all-embracing whole was already bubbling up into consciousness. It was still nothing that could be put into words but it was present on an intuitive level, and in 1963-64 it was being expressed more clearly in the music than anywhere else.

Surf music may have been the first to tap into the new holistic awareness, but a similar message was present in Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” — a technique epitomized by the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (1963) — and in the harmonies of early Beatles songs. (Not surprisingly, in 1966 the Beach Boys would fuse the wall of sound with surf rock in their groundbreaking Pet Sounds.)

By 1965, a recognition of the latent power in the music had inspired even Bob Dylan to go electric. But the new awareness was not yet accessible to everyone. The outraged folkies who thought Dylan had betrayed them didn’t get it — and neither did the clueless Time magazine intern whose interview of Dylan just before his first electric performance is believed to have inspired the classic line, “Something’s happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”

Right now, at the start of 2010, we’re coming close to the equivalent of that “Mr. Jones” moment, but we’re not quite there. Amazing things are about to happen, there is a sense of almost intolerable imminence — but they haven’t happened yet. And this time, of course, the primary vision will be not chaos but holism, which is in the process of moving away from an alignment with the failed democracy vision — and its model of progress through political reform — and into an alignment with the next social vision.

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