Getting MythicCory Panshin on December 23, 2010
When I described Julian Assange a few entries back as the living embodiment of the holism vision, I meant it quite literally. It was not intended as a metaphor. That really is how these things appear to work.
We humans may believe we invent the visions — but it might be equally true to say the visions invent us. At every step, they push us to become more fully human, or even larger than human. And they operate as if they have a life and identity of their own, going well beyond anything consciously intended by their makers.
In the course of writing these entries, I’ve repeatedly found myself saying things like “the holism vision did such-and-such” and wondered if I was just using lazy shorthand for “the adherents of the holism vision.” But it doesn’t feel like shorthand. It feels like a truthful description.
If the visions really do possess a kind of autonomous existence, however, that raises the question of how they organize, maintain, and perpetuate themselves.
In 1976, Richard Dawkins published a book titled The Selfish Gene, which suggested that we are the unconscious puppets of our genetic material, and that our DNA jerks us around to ensure its own survival without any concern for the larger system of which it is a part.
I don’t accept Dawkins’ conclusion for one moment. For one thing, it doesn’t explain any of the really interesting things that humans do — and it could even be seen as encouraging a refusal to take responsibility for our own actions.
But if you turn his theory on its head and apply it metaphorically, it hints at a far more interesting possibility — that we ourselves are in much the same situation as our genes, believing that we are ruthlessly pursuing our own petty self-interest while actually putting most of our energy into maintaining a larger system of which we are effectively unaware.
In the same book, Dawkins coined the term “meme” to extend his notion of the manipulative power of genes to human psychology.
As explained by Wikipedia, “Meme-theorists contend that memes evolve by natural selection (in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution) through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual meme’s reproductive success. Memes spread through the behaviors that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate.”
That’s getting a bit closer to indicating how the visions might operate, but as given it still displays all the old 20th century flaws of atomism and reductionism. Meme theory may explain, for example, why we can be so easily lured into sending our friends and relations the 90% of lolcats that are merely fuzzy bundles of insane cuteness — but it casts no light on the 10% that proliferate because they strike us as conveying some elusive philosophical truth.
And it doesn’t even begin to answer the question of why a hotbed of depravity like 4chan should be so effective as a meme factory.
As with Dawkins’ selfish genes, there does seem to be half of a good idea here — which is that certain aspects of culture have the power to seduce us into serving as carriers of the ideas embedded within them. But the most important part of that process is not the jumbled fragments of noetic code that wash in and out on every tide, but the vast cultural tsunamis that sweep us up and carry us along to some unknown destination.
What it comes down to is that I believe we humans serve as the willing agents of the visions I’ve been discussing in this blog. All of us act that way to a degree, whenever we make decisions about what career to pursue or how to raise our children or what movies to rent for the weekend. But some of us do it far more completely and passionately and consciously than others.
The newly emerging visions in particular have a great ability to surround us and inhabit us and use us for their own purposes. And if we are prepared to surrender to that flow and go with it, the result can be great personal creativity and accomplishment.
That’s what happened to Bob Dylan for a few years back in the 60’s, and he managed to keep riding the wave until he crashed his motorcycle and realized it was likely to kill him if he stayed with it. This is what has traditionally been known as the choice of Achilles — the ancient Greek hero who was faced with having to decide whether to die young while his fame lived on or to enjoy a long and happy life in obscurity.
It can be enough to shake the nerve and rattle the brain, but it’s not altogether a bad thing to become the servant of a powerful new vision. It requires someone with an almost superhuman degree of selflessness and dedication, but it’s precisely those people who make history.
I wrote a while back about Lady Gaga and her willingness to subordinate herself entirely to her art. Julian Assange is, in his own way, following the same path — and it may not be a coincidence that the latest WikiLeaks dump was at one point smuggled out by whistleblower Bradley Manning in the form of a counterfeit Lady Gaga CD. Like always speaks to like.
The difference, however, is that so far Assange’s art is splashed across a broader and more consequential canvas. He is playing the game at a more intense level than Gaga has yet ventured — consciously staking his life in a gamble to determine the fate of nations.
But even Assange is only one small aspect of the events that are currently unfolding — and those events astonish me, because they amount to a far stranger and more mythological form of real-world story-telling than I can recall even from the countercultural 1960’s.
Fifty years ago, politics and entertainment inhabited almost totally separate spheres of public life. They began to trickle into one another with Kennedy’s Camelot, but it’s only now that the line between fiction and non-fiction is being all but eradicated.
Even as myth encroaches on politics, however, that is only part of a larger revolution having to do with the way we interact with the materials of the imagination.
On one hand, we no longer take our imaginings as seriously as we did thousands of years ago, and it has become harder and harder to maintain unquestioning belief in the transcendent beings and realms of our own invention. At the same time, we have seen a great proliferation of purely made-up stuff which does not pretend to be anything more than entertainment: novels, movies, video games, role-playing games.
But now we seem to be entering a further phase in which all this imaginary stuff has begun invading the realm of the actual, like some kind of out-of-control virtual reality. As one example, there is a strange new willingness on the part of ordinary citizens to go out and play at being superheroes — whether that means leaping from building to building in the sport of parkour or donning masks and capes and looking for criminals to fight.
Julian Assange in his own way also projects the image of a comic book superhero, jousting with his enemies in the calm assurance that, no matter what happens to him as a single fallible human being, the transcendent power of WikiLeaks will prevail.
Assange may or may not ultimately turn the world upside down politically in the way he hopes. But the movement of consciousness of which he is a forerunner is only going to become more powerful.
As Stewart Brand put it so many years ago, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”
But if gods are, as has been suggested, merely crystallized thought-forms, then it would seem that we humans are the crystallization of our own thought-forms as well.
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