The Boundless Realms of InventionCory Panshin on September 13, 2016
I’ve been getting kind of bored with what I’ve been posting lately, which is why I haven’t added anything in several months. I’ve kept starting entries and then trashing them because they were too abstract and intellectual to hold even my own interest.
Part of the problem has been that since last spring we’ve entered one of those transitions where everything stable and familiar falls apart and the active visions undergo a transformation that will set up the ruling assumptions of the next forty or fifty years. When something like that happens, everything else seems trivial by comparison.
Moments like these represent unique points of indeterminacy in the cycle. During prolonged periods of stability, the visions unfold in a way that is largely predetermined. But when the world is in flux, multiple paths spread out before us and a choice of futures is possible. And then we select just one, and the others go back into the box of might-have-been and someday-maybe.
However, this indeterminacy applies only to the newest visions. The older ones, which have long since lost their own capacity for creative innovation, will merely be reshaped by the impact of those that are younger and more dynamic.
The two oldest of the current visions — democracy and chaos — will fare the worst. The partnership between them, which has provided the consensus norms of our society since the 1970s, is in a state of collapse due to its inability to resolve the financial meltdown of 2008. And the democracy vision in particular, which has been hollowed out by rampant corruption and inequality, has suffered a loss of legitimacy from which it will never recover.
The slightly younger chaos vision — which offers a model of human nature associated with individualism and self-expression — is a bit better off. However, it has been set adrift by the failure of the democracy vision, which had provided an ideal of citizenship that helped mute its more anti-social tendencies. It has become a justification for arrogance and self-indulgence and is due to overreach completely before being cut down to size and subordinated to the holism vision..
But even holism will lose its openness to transcendent change as it goes mainstream, is embraced by the powers-that-be, and gives up its utopian dreams in favor of practical solutions. It will still have useful work to do, but its final creative act will be to form a new dominant partnership with chaos. After that, it will close in on itself and lose its capacity for further evolution.
However, three younger visions will continue actively developing on the margins of society. The most mature of these is horizontalism, which was born in the 1920s as the direct successor to democracy and is currently the energy source for Black Lives Matter, the Native American water protectors at Standing Rock, and other social justice movements.
Next in line is the creative imagination vision, which emerged at the end of the 1960s when chaos outgrew its wild hippie past and became socially respectable. And the third is what I have tentatively been calling the creative materiality vision, which is on the verge of being born as holism is coopted by the forces of the establishment.
All three of these still remember their transcendent roots. All will continue to absorb new ideas and generate new ways of looking at the world. And — perhaps most important — all contain within themselves the even more transcendent seeds of what will become their own successors.
This last idea is something I only just arrived at in the course of doing the previous entry, and I’m still trying to figure out how it works — so it seems worth exploring here in some detail.
We can begin with the relationship between democracy and horizontalism. When the democracy vision was born in the 1500s and early 1600s, it involved vague utopian notions of social equality and freedom from oppression. Those concepts were then formulated more explicitly in the 1700s, provided the leading edge of political idealism in the 1800s, and became unquestioned dogma in the course of the twentieth century.
But almost from the start, the democracy vision provided cover for a strain of something even more radical. This strain is apparent in the Diggers, a group of radical egalitarians at the time of the Protestant Revolution in England who, according to Wikipedia, are “sometimes seen as forerunners of modern anarchism.” It then faded out in the eighteenth century, came back round in the nineteenth, got the hell kicked out of it in the early twentieth, and finally fed into the birth of horizontalism.
A similar pattern can be observed with the chaos vision, which emerged in the mid-1700s as a reaction against the Age of Reason. Chaos rejected the idea that human beings are essentially rational creatures and instead emphasized dreams and madness and everything else dark and incomprehensible.
Yet the chaos vision remained deeply ambivalent about the irrational. It invariably dismissed the supernatural beliefs of past eras as groundless superstitions, rooted in vestiges of a primitive or infantile mentality. And when chaos went mainstream in the 1970s, this darker side was largely pared away, leaving only the free-spirited and self-affirming aspects that were most compatible with its new partner, the democracy vision.
However, chaos coexisted from the start with suggestions that the beliefs of the past had a value of their own and that the true alternative to over-rationality was not madness but imagination. One example can be found in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, which was published in 1764.
This groundbreaking tale of hauntings and revenge was the first Gothic novel. It has been credited with sparking the Romantic Revival and was the direct precursor of the modern genres of fantasy and horror. But Walpole’s objective in giving medieval superstitions a literary rebirth was not merely to shake the nerves and rattle the brains of readers bored with the realistic novel. As he explained in his preface to the second edition:
It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success. Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life. … The author of the following pages thought it possible to reconcile the two kinds. Desirous of leaving the powers of fancy at liberty to expatiate through the boundless realms of invention, and thence of creating more interesting situations, he wished to conduct the mortal agents in his drama according to the rules of probability; in short, to make them think, speak and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions.
Walpole never went beyond “creating more interesting situations” as a reason for prizing imagination, but fifty years later the poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge would offer an explicit theoretical justification. Stripped of its old-fashioned religious terminology, his argument was that the “primary imagination” is the mental capacity that enables us to assemble a jumble of sensory impressions into a coherent replica of the true reality outside our direct awareness.
This in itself was a radical assertion in an era that did not believe in the possibility of non-sensory knowledge. But then Coleridge took it a step further by defining the “secondary imagination” as an “essentially vital” process of dissolving the materials of perception and recreating them in idealized form. This he viewed as the basis of all poetry and art.
Echoes of Coleridge’s ideas would pop up here and there in later decades, usually when some writer of fantasy was trying to legitimize their peculiar vocation. But his theory of the imagination made little headway against the prevailing assumption that fantasy represents an escape from reality rather than an intensification of it.
The significant breakthrough came with J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” which was delivered as a lecture in 1939 and appeared in print in 1947. This essay grew out of Tolkien’s own efforts to justify turning his proposed sequel to The Hobbit — which as a children’s book fell within the limited parameters for fantasy allowed by the chaos vision — into a serious story for grownups. But its full influence was not felt until it was republished in 1966, following the unexpected success of the first paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings.
“On Fairy-Stories” spoke of the special nature of a certain kind of magical tale, its ability to arouse inexplicable joy in the reader, and its connection with the imaginative function of sub-creation. And though Tolkien related all these things to his personal religious beliefs, his defense of fantasy proved capable of standing on its own. It was embraced by the Sixties counterculture — which was responsive to any argument that the products of the imagination were in some sense realer than ordinary reality — and helped prompt the birth of the creative imagination vision a couple of years later.
That vision is not based solely on Coleridge and Tolkien. It also draws heavily on traditional spirituality and mysticism and has incorporated many of the stranger bits of twentieth century fantasy and science fiction. But a faith in the ability of the imagination to recreate the true reality lying beyond the doors of perception — and to intimate a transcendent reality even beyond that — is the key that binds these other elements together.
As the heirs of three centuries of extreme skepticism, it is difficult for us moderns to know just what that faith implies. But over the next few years, as the chaos vision falls further into disarray and frees creative imagination to explore its own implications, we will start to find out.Read the Previous Entry: A Living Universe
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