Archive for December, 2014

As I’ve worked with the cycle of visions, I’ve always found the rise and fall of successive visions and the interactions among them fairly easy to identify . The hard part is figuring out the source of this recurring pattern and the mechanisms that keep it going over vast stretches of time and space with an amazing degree of regularity.

I’ve used a variety of analogies to attack this question, but the one that appears most relevant is language.

The central feature of language is that it is rules-based. Toddlers who are just learning to talk string words together loosely, but they don’t produce fully-formed sentences. The complete range of human speech becomes available to them only once they master the detailed grammatical rules that indicate how the elements of a sentence fit together.

Different languages employ different rules but the capacity for creating and learning rules-based systems appears to be innate — and it is not confined to language. It also underlies our love of games. It is the basis of law and government. It plays a role in both art and science.

Rules-based system are naturally coherent because the same rules always apply under similar circumstances. This is why speakers can utter novel sentences and still be understood. It is why judges or gamemasters can hand down decisions and feel confident they will be accepted.

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At times when the visions are rapidly shifting and mutating, people begin to choose up sides on the basis of their allegiance to one vision or another and act out the consequences in public. Right now, the chaos vision is tied in with the worst abuses of the current social order, so it is at the center of the conflict between those who benefit from that order and those who suffer under it. This is why racism and sexism have become such flashpoints.

The chaos vision emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries out of a perception of the human mind as fundamentally irrational and chaotic. It went through its period of greatest moral purity from the 1920s to the 1960s, when it provided the justification for throwing off the inhibitions and puritanical condemnations of the Victorians. But even then, it was perceived ambivalently — sometimes regarded as liberating and empowering but just as often blamed for violence and social disorder. And now that it is entering its rancid old age, the negative outcome of both these perceptions is becoming overwhelming.

For more than a century, the most chaotic and irrational aspects of the vision have been associated with African-Americans. At the peak of “scientific” racism in the early 1900s, Negroes were portrayed as low in intellect, given to superstitious fears, frequently hopped up on drugs, and unable to control their passions. None of that stopped white people from appropriating jazz and other aspects of black culture — but generally only after they had been cleaned up and shorn of their most raw and vulgar elements.

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