Chaos Tamed

on April 20, 2010

During the peak countercultural years of the 60’s, when all the old verities were breaking down and nothing could be taken for granted, the newest visions formed a center of active speculation. Holism, multiculturalism, and the first intimations of the creative imagination vision all developed rapidly between about 1966 and 1972.

This intellectual turmoil faded in the 70’s, however, as the culture turned its attention to the urgent problem of reestablishing stability. And the first step in that process of renormalization was the domestication of chaos.

In the 1960’s, chaos had been perceived as dangerous, threatening, and destructive — but also as inspiring, liberating, and even intoxicating. The promise of chaos unleashed was what made the 60’s so memorable. It offered the enticement of everything that was forbidden and everything that was desired. It was the sum of all possibilities and all fears.

But as the 1970’s wore on, the chaos vision lost its aura of danger and turned into just one more way of organizing personal experience. It still emphasized intuition, flexibility, and “doing your own thing,” but in a toned-down form that no longer constituted a serious challenge to the existing order.

This deflation of chaos was no doubt inevitable. It is the way all countercultural periods end. We humans have a need for stability, and it appears that we can only function for a limited amount of time in the absence of a dominant partnership. Soon the strain becomes overwhelming and a new dominant partnership must be constructed.

But there was no going back to the old ways. Science had been discredited, democracy thrown into doubt, and chaos had to step into the breach and assume the leadership of society. The king is dead, long live the king.

Even so, much that was of value was lost when chaos cut its hair and shed its wild hippie ways.

Every vision is born from a glimpse of something outside all ordinary human experience. In its early stages it possesses the ability to lead our perceptions beyond the everyday world, and that ability is intensified as it reaches its countercultural peak. For a brief moment, the vision appears to have the power to overturn all personal, social, and cosmic norms, dissolve all boundaries, and reveal the true face of reality in all its wonder and terror.

But that sense of apocalyptic wonder cannot be sustained for long. Once it burns out and the vision is pressed into mediating the concerns of society, the original magical quality quickly drains away. The democracy-and-chaos partnership which formed in the late 70’s has guided our culture for the last 35 years, but it retains only the discarded garments of chaos. The original spirit has long since moved on.

And it was not just the aura of mystery that was lost when chaos gave up its connection to higher reality. It was something far more substantial — the ability to imagine a future that would be radically different from the present.

The modern concept of “the future” is not all that old. It goes back only to the middle 1700’s, when a few European intellectuals dared to suggest that society might change as much in coming centuries as it had already changed since the days of ancient Greece and Rome. That daring speculation was one more early intimation of the chaos vision.

The first theoretical formulation of the idea of constant change can be dated to 1750, when the French economist Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot published a discourse titled “A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind.” But what Turgot presented there was extremely cautious and limited:

Turgot argued that human societies pass through cycles of barbarism and civilization, the former attended by superstition, the latter the fruits of reason. He discussed the transfer from one to the other and back again. Human restlessness, a taste for liberty and a critical spirit elevates societies into civilization, but then these impulses become institutionalized and conservative and become the very impediments of further progress. Reason morphs into superstition, and society is driven back into barbarism.

Like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Walpole, Turgot was writing in that crucial transitional period of the 1750’s and 60’s, when disenchantment with the reason-based counterculture was helping to birth the first hints of the chaos vision. That may be why it seemed natural to him to imagine future developments as governed by a tug-of-war between reason and chaos.

As the reason vision grew increasingly dominant in the 1800’s, however, something very curious happened. On one hand, people came to believe that the future would not be cyclical after all, but that society would become more and more rational until it achieved an ideal utopian state. And yet, paradoxically, that rational anticipation provided a safe space within which chaotic assumptions of radical change could find widespread acceptance.

This openness to change had effects in the real world, as well, where the degree of innovation in everything from technology to clothing styles was greater between about 1875 and 1915 than during any comparable period since.

But in the early 20th century, the reason vision failed, and at the same time World War I and its aftermath made the threat of actual social chaos all too real. By the time the war ended, many people felt as thought they were perched on the brink of an even greater catastrophe — the complete collapse of Western civilization.

In that moment of retreat, not only did utopian novels cease to be written but the idea of cyclical history was revived, and in a far more menacing form than it had presented in Turgot’s time, when the world appeared to be growing steadily more rational.

The most threatening aspects of cyclical history were taken very seriously in the 1920’s and 30’s, and the search for a way to break out of the cycle of collapse preoccupied historians and science fiction writers alike. But by the 1940’s, not one but two different answers were at hand.

The first was the suggestion that even though individual human beings might not be growing more rational, modern science and democracy represented a genuine advance in rationality and could be relied upon to keep the threat of barbarism at bay. That argument was an important early selling-point for the science-and-democracy partnership.

The second solution — which came to grips with chaos more directly — was the idea that it might be possible to combine the barbarian’s restless spirit and love of liberty with the self-control and ethical norms of civilization in a fusion that would be superior to either.

Tentative experiments in that kind of blending can be seen in iconic early 20th century pulp heroes like Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian. But its most epitomal expression, developed over thousands of Wild West stories, was the image of the frontier as a place where civilized adventurers might attain the skills to survive in an untamed wilderness without abandoning their civilized morality.

These two very different answers turned out to be highly compatible with one another. Together, they provided a convincing blueprint for society — science-and-democracy to maintain stability at the core, a manageable degree of chaos on the borders, and just a dash of that same chaotic spirit brought back home to keep science innovative and democracy freedom-loving.

A classic early expression of this synthesis can be seen in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories, published between 1942 and 1949, in which the psychohistory of Hari Seldon represents the ultimate application of scientific understanding to the problems of society and holds the secret to heading off 50,000 years of barbarism.

The Foundation which Seldon establishes at the edge of the galaxy, however, is ruled as much by chaos as by science. Deliberately kept ignorant of the technical details of psychohistory, its leaders are forced to act solely on their own intuition and faith in Seldon’s Plan as they deal with the petty barbarian kingdoms that spring up at the periphery as the Galactic Empire crumbles.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, Seldon’s formula became the common coin of American culture. It can be seen in John Kennedy’s proclamation in 1960 of a “New Frontier.” And it is equally present in the starship Enterprise’s mission to venture beyond the secure borders of the Federation and explore “Space…the Final Frontier.” But by the time Star Trek premiered in 1966, the science-and-democracy partnership was already coming unglued — and the hippie-barbarians were at the gates.

In the social upheavals of the late 60’s, the possibility of an actual collapse of civilization once more came to seem all too real. And although some in the counterculture welcomed that prospect, many more Americans feared it. Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 largely on the basis of an appeal to “law and order” — a phrase which conveyed a dedication to keeping chaos at bay by whatever means necessary.

In the upshot, of course, civilization didn’t fall, and society made its peace with a far less threatening version of the chaos vision. But as the power of chaos to challenge things-as-they-were faded, so did the idea of the future as a vast sea of possibility. There has been surprisingly little actual change in our culture since the middle 70’s — and the imagined futures of science fiction have suffered an even greater decline.

At its peak, the chaos vision appeared to hold within itself the absolute power of creation and destruction. It informed our understanding of the scientific powers of the atom, the biological powers of evolution, and the powers of the human mind. But all of that is gone now, or reduced to increasingly hollow fictional tropes. And it will take the emergence of a new inner experience vision, the slowly-incubating successor to chaos, to awaken us once again to the full power of creative change.


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.

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