Archive for June, 2010

During the last week, I’ve been looking over the work I did in the 1970’s on the cycle of static and creative phases, hoping to come up with clues as to the nature of the “romantic break.” But instead of finding answers, I keep being reminded of puzzles I was never able to resolve at the time.

By far the most significant of these has to do with the role played by changes in fashion.

I suggested in the previous entry that the concept of a recurring cycle of cultural phases grew out of my study of the development of science fiction — and that is true enough as far as it goes. Between January and August of 1972, Alexei and I wrote a series of columns on the history of SF, in the course of which I began toying with the notion that periods of major thematic innovation, like the 1930’s-40’s, seem to alternate with periods like the 1960’s when authors are mainly concerned with fine points of style and attitude.

That idea was only half-formed, however, when we finished the historical series and turned to other things. Alexei spent the fall of 1972 working on an essay about SF as modern myth, and I took up one of my other interests, the history of fashion.

But I must have brought some of my new historical perspective with me, because as I pored over images of 18th and 19th century styles, I was suddenly hit with an insight that women’s clothing seemed to alternate every few decades between two basic silhouettes, which I dubbed “organic” and “geometrical.” And when I jotted down my initial observations, I casually noted at the bottom of the page that “there seem to be marked correspondences with periods of modern science fiction.”

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Since doing the last entry, I’ve realized there is another aspect to the dominant partnerships that had never occurred to me before — and that means I’m going to have to sort it out before I can move on. So let me start at the beginning…

Back in the 1970’s, when I discovered there were patterns in the history of science fiction that also held true across other areas of culture, I had no inkling of the succession of visions that underlies those patterns. I only knew that cultures seemed to go through a recurring alternation of two distinct phases, which I labeled “static” and “creative.”

During a static phase, there would be profound alterations in cultural attitudes, but the fundamental institutions of society would remain untouched. In the succeeding creative phase, however, an accumulation of problems that the static period had failed to address would compel the introduction of far-reaching social and technological innovations. And then, when the most pressing issues had been resolved, the pace of change would slacken and society would drift back into stasis.

I soon recognized that there was also a consistent sequence of sub-phases within this larger cycle. A static phase, for example, always begins with a brief period of extreme cultural stagnation. This is succeeded by the explosive development of a counterculture, which battles against the complacency and falsity of the larger society. And the eventual burnout of the counterculture stimulates a concluding period of fragmentation and questioning — which sets up the conditions for the transition to a new creative phase.

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Of course, it’s more complicated than that.

It’s always more complicated than that — which is why I’ve been trying my best to say only what is absolutely necessary and not get lost in the details.

But there are important things I’ve left unsaid about the 1970’s — so let’s rewind a bit and consider what was going on during that painfully fragmented decade, during which everything seemed to be flying off in all directions.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the 70’s is by comparing them to the very similar period from the late 1910’s to the early 1930’s, when democracy and science were reshaped under the influence of chaos in a way that ultimately enabled them to come together as a new dominant partnership.

In much the same way, first chaos and then democracy were reconfigured in the 60’s and 70’s under the influence of holism, which acted as a catalyst in the process without being noticeably altered itself. This period of extreme fluidity began with the failure of the science vision around 1964-65 and concluded with the formation of the democracy-and-chaos partnership in 1976-77.

The first significant change was when the chaos vision broke away from the science-based assumption that there must be a single fixed standard of objective truth.

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