The Democratization of Higher KnowledgeCory Panshin on October 8, 2009
The period from about 1934 to 1945, when the emerging chaos vision was subordinated to the science-and-democracy partnership, provided an essential stage in the new vision’s development.
Prior to 1934, chaos was still very much the rebellious offspring of reason. Even as it rejected all expectations of a rational universe, it remained dependent on those expectations to give structure and purpose to its rebellion.
By the early 40’s, however, the chaos vision had developed its own identity and sense of purpose. These owed nothing to the reason vision but were derived from the most far-reaching implications of the newly-created synthesis of science and democracy.
The nature of the change can be clearly seen in the difference between Warner Brothers cartoons of 1940-41 — which included the first appearances of Bugs Bunny — and Betty Boop cartoons of just eight years earlier.
The Warner Brothers world is intensely modern and technological — perhaps even more so than the actual world of the early 40’s. It is a fast-moving, urbanized society of of cars and planes and radio and newsreels. It seems a lifetime removed from Betty’s world of trolley cars and shoeshine boys, or even from the more rural backgrounds of a 1941 Disney cartoon like Dumbo.
The Warner Brothers world is also strikingly democratic. Bugs himself — a brash, wise-cracking smart-aleck with a Brooklyn accent — is a populist hero of a sort that could not even have been imagined eight years earlier.
Bugs is significantly different, however, from that other populist hero of the period, the much-beset Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (novel 1939, film 1940). The secret of Bugs’ power is that he is not only a populist but a screwball — and that gives him the ability to operate from outside the system.
There had been foretastes of Bugs’ power to defy all normal social constraints in the wildly chaotic antics of the Marx Brothers. But the typical protagonists of 1930’s screwball comedies were wealthy eccentrics with the leisure and financial independence to indulge their whims.
Now that elitist bias was dissipating — and much of the change was due to the democratization of technology.
By the 1940’s, all the great new technological advances of the 20th century were becoming universally available — not just motion pictures and radio, but also those which had once been the province of the wealthy, like cars and telephones and electricity. This was giving rise to a world in which, for the first time in recorded history, the elite no longer held a monopoly of control over information and communication.
The United States was the pioneer in this democratization of technology, and it would be the key to American dominance through the remainder of the century. Hitler, for example, may have ordered his industrialists to build a people’s car — a volkswagen — but only a few hundred were actually produced, and those were mainly reserved for the Nazi elite. Not until after Germany’s defeat in World War II would the Volkswagen enter general production.
The democratization of knowledge and capacity is also the key to Bugs Bunny’s power. Even when he is hanging out in a rabbit hole deep in the forest, Bugs is no timid woodland creature. He knows as much and can do as much as any of his antagonists, and that is almost invariably enough to give him an edge.
And finally, the democratization of higher knowledge is one of the factors that sets the chaos vision apart from the reason vision. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, masters of occult wisdom — both fictional and real — were typically aristocrats, or at least people of breeding and education, who were more inclined to seek power over the common folk than to share their secret knowledge with them.
In the chaos vision, however, those with access to higher knowledge can come from anywhere and be anyone, and there is no secret wisdom that can’t be discovered simply by asking the right questions. It’s all a matter of tuning in on the proper wavelength — that along with not being too full of yourself.
The earliest phase of the science-and-democracy partnership would prove to have been also the most creative. By the end of World War II, contradictions and doubts were starting to appear and the postwar world revealed further limitations. The science-and-democracy partnership responded to those doubts — as all partnerships eventually do — by hardening into an increasingly rigid and intolerant ideology.
At that point, the chaos vision cut loose and sought inspiration elsewhere. From the late 40’s to the middle 50’s, it would be culturally isolated and intensely self-involved. And in the late 50’s it would generate a counter-culture that would become the great antagonist of what was by then perceived as the tyranny of science-and-democracy.
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.
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