The Sticking PointCory Panshin on July 17, 2012
I’ve gotten awfully deep in the weeds the past few months as I’ve tried to pin down the exact mechanisms underlying the cycle of visions. But I’m coming back round to where I started last fall — with Robert Heinlein and the chaos vision — and the end finally appears to be in sight.
This extended side-quest began when I realized there had been two very different approaches to the chaos vision in 1940’s SF. For writers like Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov who were still attached to scientific materialism, chaos might appear as either a tolerable anomaly or an apocalyptic threat to order and sanity. But for someone like Henry Kuttner or Fredric Brown, the wacky workings of the subconscious mind were an essential means of navigating the fluidity and uncertainty of a holistic universe.
That surprised me, because I’d previously thought of the visions as unitary paradigms that might evolve over time but but were self-consistent at any given moment. Now I needed to figure out how a single vision could present two such very different faces simultaneously — and I found my answer in the associations that each vision forms with those immediately senior and junior to it.
I’d been aware of those associations for a long time, but I’d regarded them as merely alliances of convenience, like the current affiliation between the internet-based holists of Anonymous and the radical horizontalists of Occupy Wall Street. I hadn’t believed these alliances could affect the visions in any deep and permanent way — but I found myself forced to conclude that they did.
That conclusion, in turn, brought forth answers to questions that had baffled me for years: What keeps the cycle of visions in motion? Why does every vision eventually wear out and lose its original transcendence? And what enables mature visions to enter into socially powerful partnerships even though their native transcendence has been exhausted?
In recent entries, I’ve applied those insights to almost every stage of the life-cycle of a vision. I’ve explored how each vision first germinates the seeds of its own successor and then rejects those seeds as it pursues intellectual coherence and mainstream acceptance. I’ve examined how the fragmentary intimations of a new-born vision take on structure and self-awareness by forming associations with other visions — first with the vision immediately senior and then, a cycle further on, with the vision immediately junior.
I’ve also investigated the other end of the life-cycle of a vision, describing the stages by which an old dominant partnership collapses and a new one is constructed to resolve the turmoil that marks the end of every countercultural period. And I’ve written about how each new partnership starts off with a strong moral agenda but eventually turns worldly, cynical, and corrupt and begins to rip itself apart.
The only piece I haven’t focused on so far is what happens in the middle: How and why does a youthful vision with its gaze fixed on transcendence abandon its mystical aspect, give up being socially marginal and dangerous, and assume the aura of maturity and responsibility that qualifies it to become a guardian of society?
A year ago, I thought I knew the answer. I believed that the chaos vision, for example, had spent its early years under the influence of scientific materialism and had only reoriented itself to the very different assumptions of holism during the counterculture of the 1960’s. It was that wrenching readjustment, I thought, that critically weakened the integrity of the vision, depriving it of its sense of purpose and setting it on a gradual path of decline.
Most of the changes I’ve made since last fall have been directed towards deconstructing that belief — starting with a recognition that the chaos vision owed little or nothing to scientific materialism during its early development. Instead, it was most closely associated with the slightly older democracy vision from the 1760’s to the 1860’s, and then with the slightly younger holism vision from the 1860’s to the 1920’s.
Try as I might, I could find no definitive signs of a philosophical rapprochement between chaos and scientific materialism until the point when chaos was drawn into the orbit of the developing scientific-materialism-and-democracy partnership — first tentatively around 1928 and then more fully from 1934.
It was only then that the universe of scientific materialism began to be perceived as chaotic — ruled by the randomness of quantum mechanics and fundamentally irrational or absurd in human terms. And at the same time, it came to seem that human consciousness was trapped in a machine universe that rendered its very existence a cosmic joke.
Chaos was rescued from this state of cosmic nausea in the 1960’s, when it turned its allegiance back to holism — but by then the damage had been done. The existential doubts of the 1930’s, reinforced by the cynicism and despair that began to afflict the scientific-materialism-and-democracy partnership in the 1940’s, had proven toxic to any sense of higher purpose.
Even the psychedelic optimism of the middle 60’s could not entirely overcome that self-defeating legacy of nihilism and absurdism. That is why the final phase of the counterculture left chaos behind and turned instead to holism, horizontalism, and the first hints of creative imagination.
But that’s far from the end of the story, because latter-day chaos has met an even darker fate — one whose first hints can be seen in the stories that Robert Heinlein wrote on the eve of World War II.
Heinlein’s central dilemma was that although he loved and valued science, he didn’t see it as completely reliable — not the way Isaac Asimov did. Asimov was a true believer in scientific-materialism-and-democracy. His fictional worlds were orderly and predictable, and if an uppity robot occasionally threatened to get out of hand, it could be brought under control simply by reminding it of its obligation to obey the Three Laws and the commands of human beings.
Heinlein, however, never believed the physical universe was all that solid and dependable — and he didn’t have much faith in society, either. In his early stories, both are under constant threat of breaking down under pressure, and even the elite technocrats who run many of his future societies with a firm hand are prone to catastrophic failure.
It seems that the single most powerful force in Heinlein’s universe is chaos — physical, social, and psychological.
In Heinlein’s more rational stories, his belief in chaos takes the form of what would now be called right-libertarianism — an emphasis on individual freedom in a context of limited government. But in his darkest and most speculative moments, the physical universe itself is unstable and in danger of disintegrating if examined too closely.
This fragility is implied in Waldo, whose central character does his best to hold it at bay: “The world varied according to the way one looked at it. In that case, thought Waldo, he knew how he wanted to look at it. He cast his vote for order and predictability! He would set the style. He would impress his own concept of the Other World on the cosmos!”
But the threat of utter chaos is inexorable in stories where there is no Waldo to hold things together by force of will. In some cases, it takes the form of solipsism — the belief that nothing really exists outside one’s own mind. In others, it involves the notion that the world is a construct which might be disassembled at any moment and stowed away like stage-sets that have outworn their usefulness.
But even if Heinlein felt uneasy with a cosmos in which chaos was king, he also gloried in it. Far more than chaos, he feared anything that might constrain his individual freedom of action — which meant he loathed every manifestation of the holism vision, from group minds to populist uprisings.
So here we have Heinlein in a nutshell — promoting scientific rationality in public to reassure the children and keep the peasants in line but dedicated in his heart to the gods of chaos and rejecting holism as the very devil. And though he can be admired for his consistency, his personal philosophy left chaos without a moral balancing wheel.
I suggested in the previous entry that holism in the 1930’s needed to form an association with horizontalism because any scientifically-based vision becomes ruthless and inhuman without a socially-based vision to remind it of whom it serves. In exactly the same way, any inner experience-based vision become egocentric and self-willed in the absence of a scientifically-based vision to remind it that we are all fragments of a larger universe
Simply put, chaos needed holism to keep it humble. For someone like Asimov, who didn’t regard chaos as transcendent, that wasn’t an issue. But for Heinlein, it was a crippling moral flaw.
The worst part, though is that Heinlein’s private failing of seventy years ago has now become a public poison eating away at the very foundations of our society. The self-doubting existential chaos of the 1960’s has long since faded out, but Heinlein’s egocentric and elitist version of chaos is still with us. And with the democracy vision in a state of collapse, chaos has become every bit as arrogant and heartless as scientific materialism was following the failure of the reason vision in 1915.
What needs to happen to chaos now is no different than what happened to scientific materialism then. It has to be taken down a peg and stripped of its power to compel. We as a society will have to surrender our hyper-individualism and fear of collective solutions. And roughly a decade from now, a rehabilitated chaos vision will be permitted to submit to the moral authority of holism and join with it as the senior member of a new chaos-and-holism partnership.
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: Holism’s Moral Center
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