Archive for April, 2010

During the course of the mid-20th century, the holism vision moved through a series of developmental stages. It first gained visibility in the 1920’s as a somewhat fuzzy attempt to formulate a philosophical alternative to scientific reductionism. In the 1930’s, it developed a theoretical framework in the form of systems theory, which provided the basis for both ecology and cybernetics. And in the late 40’s and early 50’s, it started taking on political overtones as a critique of modern industrial civilization.

Throughout that period, aspects of holistic thought found their way into the work of artists, writers, and philosophers, from M.C. Escher and J.R.R. Tolkien to Buckminster Fuller and Rachel Carson. And by the 1960’s, these intimations of a universe that was far more integrated and meaningful than the old universe of scientific materialism were starting to exert a formative influence on a new generation of story-tellers and musicians.

But even in the middle 60’s, holism was not yet perceived as a single thing, and though it formed an essential element in the chaos-based counterculture that emerged in 1964-65, it was not the primary element. The leading members of that counterculture were dedicated to the pursuit of chaos, but no one had yet dedicated themself wholeheartedly to holism as a way of life and determined to follow wherever it might lead.

The first true acolyte of holism was a man named Stewart Brand. And it came upon him quite suddenly.

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I’ve been trying for the most part to present the visions in rational terms, as a series of extended metaphors through which we humans attempt to understand the universe in which we find ourselves.

But I keep being reminded that at the very heart of the visions is something far more mystical and … well … visionary. The visions may provide our best attempts to make sense of the everyday world, but they do so by drawing upon our intimations of a deeply meaningful reality beyond the veil of perception. Every vision represents a fusion of the mundane and the otherworldly, the plausible and the mysterious, and it is that fusion which is the source of their power to convince and to motivate.

The transcendent power of each vision reaches its greatest extent at the peak of the counterculture based on that vision — when for a brief moment, it appears that all boundaries can be transgressed and all opposites can be reconciled. But the world-as-it-is can never fulfill those expectations, so each vision is fated first to overreach and then to collapse like a punctured balloon and shrink down to its most mundane and practical aspects.

That was what happened to the chaos vision when it faltered and lost its way in the late 60’s. But by then chaos had built up as an enormous charge of psychic energy — and the excess had to go somewhere once chaos was no longer large enough to contain it.

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During the peak countercultural years of the 60’s, when all the old verities were breaking down and nothing could be taken for granted, the newest visions formed a center of active speculation. Holism, multiculturalism, and the first intimations of the creative imagination vision all developed rapidly between about 1966 and 1972.

This intellectual turmoil faded in the 70’s, however, as the culture turned its attention to the urgent problem of reestablishing stability. And the first step in that process of renormalization was the domestication of chaos.

In the 1960’s, chaos had been perceived as dangerous, threatening, and destructive — but also as inspiring, liberating, and even intoxicating. The promise of chaos unleashed was what made the 60’s so memorable. It offered the enticement of everything that was forbidden and everything that was desired. It was the sum of all possibilities and all fears.

But as the 1970’s wore on, the chaos vision lost its aura of danger and turned into just one more way of organizing personal experience. It still emphasized intuition, flexibility, and “doing your own thing,” but in a toned-down form that no longer constituted a serious challenge to the existing order.

This deflation of chaos was no doubt inevitable. It is the way all countercultural periods end. We humans have a need for stability, and it appears that we can only function for a limited amount of time in the absence of a dominant partnership. Soon the strain becomes overwhelming and a new dominant partnership must be constructed.

But there was no going back to the old ways. Science had been discredited, democracy thrown into doubt, and chaos had to step into the breach and assume the leadership of society. The king is dead, long live the king.

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I’ve covered most of the major changes of the 1960’s by now, with one glaring exception — and that is what became of the democracy vision between the collapse of the science-and-democracy partnership in 1964-65 and the formation of the democracy-and-chaos partnership around 1976.

Frankly, I’ve been kind of baffled on that point. I’d assumed for years that the moment democracy was freed from the embrace of the science vision, it began to move closer to chaos, recovering much of its original authenticity and idealism in the process. But when I started looking for actual signs of such a renewal, I realized that was not what had happened at all.

Instead of being renewed in the late 60’s, it seems that the democracy vision became increasingly stuck in place. The presidential election of 1968, for example, was fought out between the old-school liberalism of Hubert Humphrey and the old-school conservatism of Richard Nixon — both of whom seemed determined to pretend that science-and-democracy was still a going concern. Meanwhile, the hippies and anti-war protesters just stood on the sidelines, watching the trainwreck.

I finally concluded that as soon as the science-and-democracy partnership collapsed, confidence in democracy all but evaporated as well. It was this near-total breakdown of both halves of the dominant partnership that made the late 60’s so liberating for some and so threatening for others.

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