Of Gaps and GearsCory Panshin on April 5, 2012
I have never had a satisfactory explanation for how the cycle of visions might have gotten started or for what makes it repeat in such a regular manner. This lack of a plausible mechanism prevented me from writing about the visions for many years, until I finally decided to just jump in and say what I know and leave the larger questions for later. But in recent months, I think I’ve finally started to catch sight of an answer.
Part of that answer has to do with the complex web of associations and mutual influences among the visions that keeps the system in motion. The underlying dynamic however, appears to involve the constant tension between higher knowledge and ordinary knowledge.
Those two forms of knowledge are typically in disagreement about the nature of reality, but occasionally we manage to identify some aspect of our everyday experience with our mystical sense of being participants in a larger and more meaningful universe. The most powerful of these intimations have the potential of developing into a vision that is shared by an entire culture.
When a new vision appears, its ready access to higher knowledge enables it to become a vehicle for creativity and inspiration, capable of sending people out to build machines, found empires, or upgrade their moral standards. But over time, every vision starts to identify with what it has already brought into being and lose sight of higher possibility. It grows narrow and defensive, becomes a vehicle for power politics and elite control, and dooms itself to failure and replacement.
At least, that’s the story as I’ve told it up to now. This quasi-biological model of growth, decay, and overthrow by a younger and more vital successor does have a certain plausibility, and it might even be the way things worked in the remote past, when the earliest visions rose and fell. But over the last 10,000 years or so, the cycle has become ever more elaborate, with multiple visions interacting at any given time, and that demands a more complex model.
I’ve been focusing on the associations among visions since last fall, and I believe they are the underlying cause of every vision’s rise and decline. An emerging vision’s initial associations strengthen it and broaden its appeal, but over time they lure the vision away from its original point of contact with higher knowledge, weakening its integrity and depriving it of transcendence.
I was aware of recurring patterns of association among the visions as much as a dozen years ago, but I took them for mere alliances of convenience, sources of mutual philosophical and political support with no permanent effect on the inner essence of each vision.
Even last summer, I still believed it was only after a vision lost its grounding in higher knowledge that it became susceptible to major reinterpretation. But as I started trying to understand 1940’s science fiction, I was forced to conclude that even a vision in the emergent stage, as chaos was then, could take on significantly different forms depending on its associations.
I said as much in an entry titled Chaos Mark I and Chaos Mark II, which I posted in the early hours of September 18 — the first night of Occupy Wall Street’s encampment at Zuccotti Park. And as I look back over the flood of new ideas I’ve been attempting to express since then, I suspect that I’ve been caught up in precisely the kind of countercultural shift that I cited at the end of my previous entry.
Specifically, the holism vision is losing its mojo — and as it does, the kinds of biological metaphors that formerly appeared persuasive no longer carry the same weight. Instead, we are starting to see hints of holism’s successor, which I have tentatively labeled “creative materiality.”
The precise shape of that successor is not yet defined, but it is clear that it won’t share holism’s terror of viewing existence as a piece of cosmic machinery. A striking example of this new attitude appears in last fall’s blockbuster hit Hugo, which is as fixated as any steampunk upon wheels and gears.
In one memorable scene inside a giant clock, the lead character says, “I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.”
And at another point, he says, “Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do. … Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose … it’s like you’re broken.”
These two quotes fascinate me. Not only do they return the much-vilified metaphor of the machine universe to a place of honor, but they do so by coupling it to the idea of purpose — an idea which was explicitly excluded from the “mechanical philosophy” underlying scientific materialism.
This profound philosophical difference shouldn’t come as a surprise. Nineteenth century machines were great, clunking, mindless things. without purpose or direction of their own, so to suggest that the universe and everything in it was that kind of machine was a source of genuine horror.
But machines today are small, flexible, and increasingly responsible to our needs and emotions. They can even give the impression of having minds of their own, like the robots I discussed a while back who responded to directives that included a hint of transcendence — like “strive upwards” or “seek the light” — by behaving in ways that offered a curious facsimile of free will.
Frankly, I’ve never been able to understand the concept of “free will” — at least not in terms of the usual dorm-room arguments about whether humans can make meaningful choices or are helpless pawns of causality. On the other hand, it seems entirely reasonable to speculate about whether the physical universe is driven solely by the interactions of its parts or is open to forces outside its normal parameters.
Once you pose the question in those terms, it falls into the domain of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which indicate that every complex mathematical system must include statements that cannot be proven to be true within that system, but only in the context of a larger system to which it belongs.
I can’t say for sure whether the physical universe is “incomplete” in Gödel’s sense — though it would certainly offer a satisfying solution to the problem of free will — but it’s very much true of the cycle of visions.
The more I explore the system of visions, the more it appears as both a substantial piece of machinery, within which each vision follow a well-scripted trajectory, and a bit of gossamer riddled with holes and gaps through which higher knowledge can enter freely to introduce novelty and unexpected variations.
In an entry a couple of years ago, I suggested that “the visions are not some sort of clockwork mechanism that got wound up at the beginning of history and have been running through a predetermined series of changes ever since. They’re far more like a toy hoop that can take any path but only keeps rolling as long as a human operator is there to maintain its momentum and guide it round the obstacles.”
At that time, I identified the outside force steering the visions as “morality,” but now I would say more broadly that it is higher knowledge — knowledge which enters the sphere of ordinary experience from beyond, leading us to innovate, improvise, and follow the path of infinite possibility.
These infusions of higher knowledge do not occur just randomly, however, but are woven into the structure of the cycle. It appears, for example, that at any given moment only the three newest visions are able to act as channels for higher knowledge, while the more established visions are given over to ordinary knowledge and have lost their openness to transcendence.
It also appears that the newest visions reflect the impact of higher knowledge most strongly at the points in the cycle where the established visions are weakest. One of those gaps begins shortly before a countercultural period and continues until its onset. Another occurs as the counterculture is winding down and is cut short when a new dominant partnership takes hold. And a third is initiated when the dominant partnership stumbles, giving rise to a “romantic break.”
At all these times, the three newest visions undergo rapid development and take on the power to influence the culture at large, often in defiance of efforts by the more senior visions to keep them suppressed.
The 1958-63 period, for example, was not only the point when holism became strongly influential but was also marked by a flowering of horizontalism — in the form of the civil rights movement — and was when hints of creative imagination started to emerge out of the impact of holism upon chaos.
As the 60’s counterculture got under way, events quickly took on their own momentum, but there was a second period of openness around 1974-76, when holism and horizontalism were both active and the creative imagination vision was coalescing. And when the democracy-and-chaos partnership stumbled around 1984, the same three visions again served as a focal point for the expression of heretical ideas.
That particular triumvirate has broken down since the 1990’s, with holism losing its focus and becoming a prime target for repression. But the logic of the cycles suggests that even now a new threesome must be emerging, consisting of the horizontalism that powers Occupy Wall Street, the creative imagination that is woven through it, and the first hints of creative materiality.
A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.
A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.
A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.
A simple list of all the visions can be found here.Read the Previous Entry: The Birth of a Vision, Reconsidered
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