Creative MaterialityCory Panshin on June 1, 2011
Since doing the previous entry about the birth of new visions, I’ve been thinking a lot about the possible nature of the successor to the holism vision.
It’s not possible to figure out intellectually what form that vision will take, of course. A new vision is born when higher knowledge catches a glimpse of its own reflection in the mirror of ordinary knowledge, and there is no way to predict where the lightning will strike.
But my comparative timetables suggest that early intimations of holism’s successor ought to have begun popping up over the past two or three years, much as the first hints of creative imagination were appearing among Tolkien fans and proto-hippies on the eve of the 60’s counterculture.
That means it should be possible to identify signs of change, such as areas where holism is showing its limitations or aspects of science that hold an unrealized potential for being perceived as transcendent.
As I’ve noted previously, the greatest weakness of holism has always been its lingering elitism. The proto-holists of the early twentieth century were frequently appalled by the modern world of skyscrapers and factories and dreamed of getting back to a time when there was “less noise and more green.” And though holism eventually threw off its most blatant aristocratic biases, the utopian ideal at its core has remained decidedly low-tech and low-population.
Holism’s greatest strides towards egalitarianism have come about through the influence of the multiculturalism vision — first in the 1940’s, again in the Whole Earth Catalog days of the early 70’s, and most recently in the 1980’s. That influence is particularly strong at present in the movement for environmental justice, which forms just one aspect of a worldwide quest for social justice towards the poorest and most exploited peoples of the planet.
As calls for social justice grow in urgency, two things can be expected to happen to the holism vision. One is that, to the best of its ability, it will adapt to the new moral demands of the moment. It is likely, for example, to abandon the failing democracy vision — and with it the painfully ineffective apparatus of environmental pressure groups and international accords — and embrace grassroots organizing, direct action, and the non-hierarchical spirit of horizontalism.
But the realities of an over-populated and slum-ridden world of shrinking resources are creating problems that cannot be resolved within the premises and ideals of holism. As this truth becomes undeniable, a new vision will inevitably emerge that can take the leading-edge ideas of holism, combine them with a pragmatic determination to do whatever it takes, and make that the starting point for a radically new approach.
Many of the sticking points of the holism vision will only reveal themselves in the course of time, but one that’s already clear is the degree to which it is entangled with the free market.
For libertarians, the market is a uniquely efficient self-organizing system that needs to be liberated from government control in order to work its magic. And though there’s no way to square this idealized image with the actual social and environment abuses of free market capitalism, there’s also no obvious way within the premises of holism to refute it. We can only conclude that holism must be wrong about some important aspects of how the world works.
A similar paradox helped inspire the birth of the creative imagination vision in the 1960’s, when it became apparent that the absurdism of the chaos vision could not account for the more structured and meaningful perceptions of reality encountered by the psychedelic counterculture and reinforced by holism. And just as the 60’s had certain enthusiasms, such as the I Ching or the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, that pointed away from the chaos vision and towards creative imagination, so the current moment has its enthusiasms that point away from holism and towards something radically different.
The holism vision was born in the 19th century as a reaction against scientific materialism, and it has always been anti-materialistic at heart. It found its initial images of transcendence in the life sciences, and by the 1930’s it was plumbing the abstractions of systems theory. At every point, it has been characterized by a deep contempt for the nuts and bolts of the physical universe — and this carries over on the cultural level to anyone who appears to be overly concerned with “stuff.”
This anti-materialistic stance typified the Beats and the hippies, but it may have reached its apex in the mid-1980’s, at the same time as environmentalism was entering its most anti-technological phase. Think, for example, of Madonna’s ironic “Living in a Material World” (1985) or George Carlin’s classic rant about hauling around “too much stuff.”
Anti-materialism of that sort is still very much with us, but over the last decade something has changed. Steampunks, Makers, and radical farmers all display a new respect for well-made objects and wholesome food — which is what enables them to approach life without being trapped in hipster irony.
At the same time, it’s becoming apparent that in a weird way our anti-materialistic bias is inextricably bound up with our most glaring social problems. Corporations, despite having only a fictive legal existence, are granted all the rights of real people. The system of financial derivatives — in which mortgages are more valuable than actual houses and grain futures are worth more than actual grain — has all but destroyed the real economy.
It’s beginning to seem that the only thing which will save us is to sweep aside this over-proliferation of immaterial abstractions and get back to an economy grounded in physical objects and the workers and farmers who produce them.
But the visions are not simply problem-solving devices, and there’s one more thing which has to occur before these various enthusiasms and discontents can coalesce into a new understanding of existence. That is the flash of transcendent recognition that is at the heart of every vision.
I came fairly close to capturing the nature of that recognition in something I wrote a year ago about the Steampunks. I don’t believe I quite nailed it, but let me start by quoting what I said then:
The highest steampunk goal is to be a “maker” — and their idea of making is rooted in the creative transformation of material objects, not just in shoving pixels around on a screen.
This concept of transforming materiality is crucial, because it’s precisely what creative imagination needs to carry it beyond the stage of hints and intimations. Just as the chaos vision required a touch of holism to emerge in the 1860′s, so creative imagination will need a touch of the successor to holism before it can become a fully-fledged vision.
One early foretaste of such a development may be the image I keep coming back to — of transcendence as a force that pours through the gaps in reality provided by creative individuals and transforms materiality into something higher and finer.
That’s certainly a definition of creative imagination — but it only works if you recognize materiality not as inert matter but as holding within it a spark of divinity that gives it the potential for creative transformation.
I’d still accept this as an accurate description of things as seen from the point of view of creative imagination — but I suspect it falls far short of what will be the more radical perspective of the successor to holism.
Simply put, for the next scientifically-based vision, materiality will not simply be something that may hold a “spark of divinity” but has to sit around waiting for the pixie dust of creative imagination to light upon its head and turn it into “something higher and finer.”
Instead, matter will be perceived as divine and intrinsically creative in itself — and human creativity will be seen as merely a special case of that universal property.
Holism largely grew out of an attempt to justify the conviction that life is superior to matter and consciousness is superior to life. That is the philosophical basis for its elitism — but in purely scientific terms, that belief no longer looks unassailable
I’ve suggested in recent entries that all living things, even single-celled organisms, are creative and innovative by nature, and that those simple organisms invented us and our world and are still essential to our survival and evolution. But the same line of thought, taken to its logical conclusion, would imply that the “non-living” matter out of which living things emerged must have a creative nature as well.
The first of these conclusions challenges the conceptual limits of holism, but the second completely obliterates them. And yet that kind of radically bottom-up thinking has to be expected as we start subjecting the materials of holism to the leveling approach of multiculturalism.
It’s possible, in fact, to takes this line of thought ever further. I strongly suspect that the new vision will come to regard creative materiality as the true source of higher knowledge — about which we know nothing except that it comes to us from somewhere outside our ordinary experience — and as the motive force behind what I recently called “a vast cosmic spectacle in which the universe itself is the evolving party and we are merely its agents.”
None of this, of course, should be taken as implying that creative imagination and creative materiality will be at odds. Like any two visions that are adjacent in the series, they will for the most part be mutually supportive. But creative materiality may ultimately prove to be far wilder and stranger and more unsettling than anything dreamed of by creative imagination alone.
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