Upgrading the Narrative

on October 17, 2013

There can be something intensely liberating about referring back to old research notes. They may appear outdated or irrelevant, but they can also remind you of forgotten truths and send your mind racing off in unexpected directions. That’s what happened to me in the course of writing the previous entry, and I wound up expressing opinions that were at odds with much of what I’ve recently said about dominant partnerships.

I’ve been somewhat scornful of dominant partnerships lately, dismissing them as fossilized and untranscendent in comparison with the younger visions — but that wasn’t always the case. When I first recognized the existence of the cycle of visions, it was because the dominant partnerships leaped out at me. It seemed plain that they set the distinctive tone of each era, legitimized its social and religious institutions, and inspired its major cultural achievements.

It took me longer to realize that younger visions were already developing around the margins of the partnership, and even then I focused chiefly on the next one in line, which serves as a focal point for discontent and opposition to the reigning worldview. I regarded the two newest visions as no more than vague, mystical intimations that might inspire the occasional artist or philosopher but had little impact on society as a whole.

Over the last year or two, however, my attitude has undergone a complete reversal. I’ve become fascinated by the birth and growth of the youngest visions, and I’ve come to see them as having a mysterious, subterranean power that inspires the most creative and progressive aspects of society and serves as the engine of cultural evolution and transformation.

As a result, I’ve been led to assume that the fundamental dynamic of the cycles is an unending struggle between transcendence and stability, with new visions regularly arising to challenge outworn norms that have become stagnant and repressive. But that conclusion now strikes me as partial and inadequate.

In the previous entry, I wrote that the creation of a new transcendent triad and the construction of a new dominant partnership should be regarded as successive steps in a single, extended movement of higher knowledge. If that’s true, it implies that every new partnership, far from representing a rejection of the insights of the just-formed triad, should be seen as aiming to incorporate them in a synthesis that combines the mystical with the practical and promotes both transcendence and stability.

These syntheses always work brilliantly at first, but as a partnership achieves worldly success, it starts to lose its balance. In its final, declining days, it even resorts to suppressing the younger visions in the name of maintaining control. That’s what seals its doom and sets off the complete reorganization of the system of visions that will culminate with a new triad and a new partnership.

Reassessing the process which leads from the collapse of an old partnership to the establishment of its successor also has other implications. One is that this cascade of adjustments, which I’ve repeatedly compared to a wacky Rube Goldberg device, might be better characterized as a deliberate juggling act, guided at every point by higher intentionality.

Of course, this raises the tricky problem of just where such intentionality might be located and who would be doing the juggling — but right now I don’t want to get caught up in philosophical speculation. I’m more interested in taking it as a given that the reorganization of the visions is a deliberate act and examining the consequences.

One question that strikes me as important to address involves the precise nature of the event that shatters the old order and sets off the reorganization. I’ve suggested recently that it happens when the outsider vision is coopted by the mainstream and abandons the triad of which it had been the eldest member. This leaves the two youngest visions in the lurch, causing both the triad and society in general to fly to pieces.

That account has a certain plausibility but I’m not entirely sold on it — partly because it carries too many negative overtones. It’s a story about sell-out and betrayal and the tendency of all earthly things to fall apart, and I think I can do better.

As it happens, I already have an alternative scenario on tap. As I was rummaging through my old notes, I came up with a dot matrix printout from 1999 in which I summarized the life-cycle of a vision as I understood it at that time. There I described the collapse of each dominant partnership as a two-stage affair, with the first breakdown weakening its grip on society and the second providing the final catastrophe that throws the culture into disarray and prompts the outsider vision to assume the burden of putting things back together.

According to that version of events, the initial stage of the collapse begins when an aging partnership has grown out of touch to the point where it crumbles in the face of crisis rather than responding effectively. This was what happened to the reason-and-scientific-materialism partnership when faced with the shock of World War I, to the scientific-materialism-and-democracy partnership when faced with the Kennedy assassination, and to the democracy-and-chaos partnership when faced with the financial meltdown of 2008.

The immediate result is an intense wave of disillusionment that frees up the three youngest visions to engage in various forms of rebellion. But although the senior partner has been fatally wounded, the junior partner recovers fairly speedily. It is even gains strength for a time, though not in a positive way. With no other vision capable of balancing out its excesses, it grows narrow-minded, self-righteous, and insanely reckless.

That is precisely where the United States stands at the present moment. The democracy vision upon which our nation was founded is in tatters, our long-established institutions of government are under assault, and the impulses towards extreme self-interest associated with the chaos vision are in the saddle and suffer no restraint.

The outcome of this kind of jam-up is not an abrupt collapse but more of a slow motion meltdown. Society becomes sharply polarized, as happened in the late Sixties. The youngest visions grow increasingly alienated. The establishment struggles to prop up the disintegrating partnership with a mixture of propaganda and repression. And most ordinary folks just hunker down and wait for the whole thing to blow over.

And yet this period of meltdown has positive aspects, especially for anyone who owes allegiance to the emerging visions. As the partnership decays, there is a powerful influx of higher knowledge that will ultimately remake the entire system. It begins with the outsider vision being pushed along two different paths. One involves finding practical solutions for the problems that have baffled the failing partnership. The other evokes those mystical impulses that will lead to the birth of the vision’s successor.

As soon as this process is well under way, the pieces are lined up on the chessboard and the next phase can commence. It starts with the partnership entering its final death throes of self-bafflement and rage and then collapsing, leaving the entire society traumatized and fragmented.

After a brief pause for desperation to reach the breaking-point, the outsider vision steps in. It gives up its former role as leader of the opposition in order to accept the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of society. And at that precise moment, the mantle of transcendence passes to its own new-born successor — which will soon become the youngest member of a remade transcendent triad.

This strikes me as a far better story than the one I was telling previously. It’s more dynamic and creative. It places higher knowledge at the center of events. And it grants the outsider vision a position of agency rather than casting it as a helpless pawn of events.

That last point may be the most important, but it does leave me wondering why I’ve expended so much effort over the last forty years in a fruitless attempt to deny the creative power of higher knowledge and reduce the cycles to a mechanical sequence of cause and effect.

The answer is apparently that I’ve been haunted all this time by the ghost of scientific materialism.

That same fuzzy printout concludes with some remarks on how remnants of a vision may persist even after its final catastrophic failure. It notes that “the vision hangs on longest in the form of certain beliefs, customs, and patterns of relationship which have become embedded in the culture at large. These tend to be purged only a full cycle later.”

Our society may have stopped believing in the World of the Future sometime in the 1960s, but with holism in the outsider role we’ve been without a dominant science-based vision. That forces us to fall back on the ingrained assumptions of scientific materialism whenever we want to appear properly serious and rational, and I’ve been as susceptible as anyone else. I’ve believed that my theory of the cycles must be reducible to simple, causal mechanisms to be valid — or at least that I had to pretend it was if I wanted it to gain public acceptance.

But now the fog is lifting. The holism vision is already undergoing the series of changes that will enable it to assume mainstream status. And as it does, the last vestiges of old-fashioned scientific causality are being swept aside in favor of a more interactive and emergent view of existence.

Meanwhile the transcendent seeds of holism’s own successor are starting to germinate. And both processes together will make it possible to view the cycles not as an inexorable — though charmingly quirky — machine but rather as a consistently fascinating story that we are telling ourselves about ourselves in order to bring ourselves into being.

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