on May 4, 2013

Back at the start of the human adventure, the sole function of the visions was to enable people to engage directly with the universe, with one another, and with their own inner nature. That kind of engagement had definite practical results. It could make a small group of hunter-gatherers more efficient, more mutually supportive, and more able to tap into their shamanistic powers. But it was never intended as a method of mundane problem-solving.

Mature visions, in contrast, are intensely focused on problem-solving. This gives them the ability to change the world, but only at the cost of falling out of touch with their intuitive and experiential side. They lose their nearly magical ability to synchronize human efforts, and their mystical origins are either forgotten or reduced to rote formulas.

The first mature vision came into being shortly after 200,000 years ago, when the human community was faced with a prolonged ice age that posed a threat to their very survival. As everything they had previously relied upon failed them, they lost faith in the old, instinctual ways. They turned instead to their one remaining ace in the hole — the transformation vision — and began using it as a guide to reshape the world around them.

The resulting changes in human life were sudden and profound, but they had been a long time in preparation. If recent turns of the cycle are any indication, the transformation vision would have already been starting to take on more practical aspects during the preceding 50,000 or so years.

In this, I see it as exactly comparable to the holism vision at the present moment. For the past forty years, holism has served as a utopian dream, a justification for hopes of a better world, while also inspiring practical experiments directed at bringing such a world into being. It is only now, however, as we are faced with a daunting economic and environmental crisis, that we see those experiments blossoming into fully mature technological and agricultural systems.

In much the same way, the geeks of 200,000 years ago, with their eccentric hobbies like throwing stones in the fire and brewing up strange concoctions of plant sap, would have finally found their talents and expertise in demand by society at large. They would naturally have responded with gratitude and would have done their best to come up with exactly what was required.

To some extent, that response may have been experienced as a sudden flash of higher knowledge, an instantaneous recognition that what had seemed theoretical or whimsical could be put to practical use. In retrospect, however, it looks far more like an inevitability.

Every vision grows out of a sense that what might yet come to be is superior to what is, and this gradually leads its followers to focus less on the vision itself than on the flaws they see in the world around them. As they start attempting to mend those flaws, they move away from a pure sense of wonder and towards the more activist approach that characterizes a vision in its outsider phase.

That activism makes it easy for the vision’s followers to turn to large-scale problem-solving the moment mainstream society breaks down and begs for their help. But as they shift their priorities, the vision itself is altered from a utopian dream to a practical blueprint. When that happens, it leaves a hole in the more mystical side of human life, and all the other visions are forced to adjust to take up the slack.

I’ve repeatedly used the metaphor of a Rube Goldberg machine to describe the cascading series of adjustments that occurs after an outsider vision takes on a leadership role in society. However, I’m only now starting to understand why this should be so.

The crucial factor is that we need our more mystical visions in order to be properly human. Not only that, but we need one of each type if we are to engage fully with the universe, with one another, and with our own inner nature.

Mainstream society has little use for that kind of engagement. Its chief imperative is to preserve its own integrity and authority, which it does largely through power relationships and low-level emotionalism. From that perspective, direct engagement can only be seen as a disruptive and generally unwelcome element — which is why every vision is first demonized during its outsider phase and then ruthlessly stripped of its transcendence as it begins to assume a leadership role.

The domestication of an outsider vision does not happen overnight, however, and two very interesting things occur as it is underway. One is a tug of war within the vision itself that results in the formation of an entirely new vision, assembled initially out of all the mystical bits that the outsider vision is in the course of rejecting.

The other is that a similar takeover attempt also impacts the next vision in line — but with a very different result.

As long as society is in the state of flux provoked by the failure of a dominant partnership, there is an ongoing tendency to look to the newer visions as a source of practical problem-solving. And when it turns out that the outsider vision is useful in some areas but not in others, attention inevitably turns to the vision one younger.

At the end of the 1960s, for example, it was apparent that even though a toned-down version of the chaos vision might be used to promote a more relaxed and tolerant society, it had few answers to the increasingly urgent problem of environmental degradation. The holism vision, on the other hand, was custom made for that purpose.

Up to that point, holism had been expressed in largely mystical and philosophical terms. Around 1968-69, however, getting back to nature suddenly became a hippie obsession, all but superseding the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll of the chaos vision. At the same time, holism began to take on a more practical aspect, as can be seen in the Whole Earth Catalog, with its slogan of “access to tools.”

And it wasn’t just the hippies who embraced environmentalism, but mainstream society as well. None other than Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and signed the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

For anyone who valued the mystical aspect of holism, this was taking things too far, and it’s no coincidence that the concept of Deep Ecology was first expressed in 1973. On the surface, the deep ecology movement represented an objection to the pragmatic attitude that nature should be protected only to satisfy human needs, but at its heart it was a desperate attempt to preserve the view of nature as transcendent.

Ultimately, the attempt to take holism mainstream guttered out on its own as soon as the new chaos-and-democracy partnership came together in the late 70s. Once that pairing had assumed the task of stabilizing society, there was no longer any need to turn to younger visions for solutions. For a generation to come, capitalism would be seen as the answer to everything, and when Reagan became president in 1981, environmentalism was quickly denounced as a threat to corporate profits.

By that time, however, holism had gotten a taste of both popularity and practicality, and there was no way to restore its innocence. Instead, it assumed the ambivalent status that characterizes every outsider vision. It was romantic and idealistic but also maintained an interest in practical solutions. It had been pushed to the margins of society but was eager to imagine what things might be like if it was running the show. It was supported most fervently by troublemakers and rabble-rousers, but it also displayed an ability to appeal to respectable shapers of opinion.

And now here we are, well into the next turn of the cycle, with the democracy-and-chaos partnership in disarray and holism on the verge of stepping into the center ring, surrendering its outsider status, and assuming the direction of society.

The tension between the mystical aspect of the visions and their latent problem-solving ability may be the true underlying dynamic that keeps new visions forming and the cycle as a whole moving along. On one hand, it seems that every vision is eventually drawn into meeting the needs of society at large — first tentatively, as with holism in the 1970s, and then more fully, as with holism today. But on the other, the coopting of the vision inevitably provokes a mystical pushback.

The first time round, this pushback takes the form of a romantic effort to bring the vision back to its roots. The second time, those same romantic elements are forcibly ejected and become the core of the vision’s own successor.

This scenario suggests that the beginning of the cycle must be dated not to the onset of the ice age but considerably earlier, when the transformation vision first took a more practical turn. That might have happened around 250,000 years ago, when there was a sharp but relatively brief downturn in the climate which could have made it more difficult to marvel at the endless bounty of nature and turned attention instead towards such matters as tool-making and the mastery of fire.

Whatever the specific nature of the crisis, however, it was only temporary. Once it was over, life went back to normal, and the ambitions of the transformative vision were set aside for a time. But the followers of the vision had acquired a taste for experimentation, the control of nature, and public acclaim which they would never quite relinquish. And when an even greater crisis came around, they were more than ready to come forward and accept the leadership of society.

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