Posts Tagged ‘creative imagination’

A few months ago, I wrote about how each dominant partnership gives rise to a philosophy that attempts to explain all aspects of existence in terms derived from its two member visions.

In that entry, I focused on the philosophy of science-and-democracy, whose core belief was that everything in existence could be reduced to simple universal laws like those of physics, and I identified Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories as an epitomal early example.

I also suggested in passing that the philosophy of democracy-and-chaos, which arose in the 1980’s, was structured around a belief that “the democratic model of dynamic interactions among different interest groups” provided a better basis for understanding the universe than the mathematical formulas of science.

Since then, however, I’ve realized that I was mistaken — if only because any model based on “dynamic interactions” has to be an aspect of multiculturalism. The actual philosophy of democracy-and-chaos is both simpler and broader, and the best way I know to explain it starts with the Foundation stories.

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The closer I get to the present, the more difficult it is to make out exactly what’s been going on with the visions — and I’m finding creative imagination particularly challenging. This is partly because it’s still in its proto-stage, overshadowed by holism and multiculturalism, and has yet to take on a fully distinctive form.

But even the initial crystallization of creative imagination remains obscure. I’ve pegged it as falling around 1978-81, because I see those years as being equivalent to 1936-39, when multiculturalism emerged, but I haven’t been able to come up with any literary or artistic examples from that time. My suspicion is that visions based on inner experience, being the most esoteric, take longer than social or scientific visions to make a significant public impact.

I do see clear signs of a shift reflected in Alexei’s and my own work. In the late summer of 1979, as we were embarking on the final version of The World Beyond the Hill, Alexei wrote an introductory chapter that pulled together much of what we had been attempting to say since the early 70’s. It was so full of strange new ideas, however, that we soon realized it didn’t fit into our history of science fiction. We wound up detaching it from the book and submitting it separately for publication under the title “Science Fiction and the Dimension of Myth.”

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Every vision encounters a pivotal moment early in its development when it helps midwife the birth of the vision immediately following it and in the process becomes able to shake off the influence of earlier visions and discover its own true shape and purpose.

For holism, that moment came between about 1936 and 1939. Multiculturalism was born in those years as an extension of the holistic understanding of the natural world to human society, and in return it provided holism with the means to move beyond its original philosophical and scientific roots and become a complete vision of existence.

The proto-holism of the 1920’s and early 30’s was deeply concerned with abstract questions of matter, life, and mind, but it didn’t have much relevance to everyday life. It took the social ideals of multiculturalism to reinvent a holism that did not merely dream of getting back to nature but was ready to provide blueprints for how human beings might live in a more organic relationship to one another and to their environment.

That unsuccessful Frank Lloyd Wright project of 1939, in which seven unique houses were related organically to each other and to a central farming area, was one such blueprint. But there have been others since — all of them showing a strong family resemblance — as holism and multiculturalism have continued to develop and mature together.

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I’ve been thinking on and off about the differences between the chaos vision and the creative imagination vision, and it’s occurred to me that one of the most obvious is that chaos is heavily dependent on the concept of the subconscious, while creative imagination isn’t.

Chaos didn’t start out in the 18th century with a theory of the subconscious, but it did focus heavily on the whole range of non-rational mental states, from dream to madness to supernatural terror. And when the chaos vision started getting more organized in the late 1800’s, Sigmund Freud’s concept of the subconscious provided the first really satisfactory explanation for all those anomalous states.

The reason-and-science partnership was at its peak just then, and human beings were seen as primarily creatures of reason. But Freud’s theory suggested that it was only the conscious mind that was rational, while the subconscious was the natural home of everything that reason excluded — sex and violence, nameless fears and inexplicable urges, primitive instincts and childlike wonder.

In the first half of the 20th century, as reason faded and the chaos vision took on greater authority, the subconscious became correspondingly more powerful as well — perhaps even more powerful than the conscious mind. In science fiction stories of the 1940’s and 50’s, the subconscious was frequently represented as either a vast unknown territory, full of ghosts and archetypal presences, or a kind of shadow self with its own knowledge and agenda.

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During the course of the mid-20th century, the holism vision moved through a series of developmental stages. It first gained visibility in the 1920’s as a somewhat fuzzy attempt to formulate a philosophical alternative to scientific reductionism. In the 1930’s, it developed a theoretical framework in the form of systems theory, which provided the basis for both ecology and cybernetics. And in the late 40’s and early 50’s, it started taking on political overtones as a critique of modern industrial civilization.

Throughout that period, aspects of holistic thought found their way into the work of artists, writers, and philosophers, from M.C. Escher and J.R.R. Tolkien to Buckminster Fuller and Rachel Carson. And by the 1960’s, these intimations of a universe that was far more integrated and meaningful than the old universe of scientific materialism were starting to exert a formative influence on a new generation of story-tellers and musicians.

But even in the middle 60’s, holism was not yet perceived as a single thing, and though it formed an essential element in the chaos-based counterculture that emerged in 1964-65, it was not the primary element. The leading members of that counterculture were dedicated to the pursuit of chaos, but no one had yet dedicated themself wholeheartedly to holism as a way of life and determined to follow wherever it might lead.

The first true acolyte of holism was a man named Stewart Brand. And it came upon him quite suddenly.

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I’ve covered most of the major changes of the 1960’s by now, with one glaring exception — and that is what became of the democracy vision between the collapse of the science-and-democracy partnership in 1964-65 and the formation of the democracy-and-chaos partnership around 1976.

Frankly, I’ve been kind of baffled on that point. I’d assumed for years that the moment democracy was freed from the embrace of the science vision, it began to move closer to chaos, recovering much of its original authenticity and idealism in the process. But when I started looking for actual signs of such a renewal, I realized that was not what had happened at all.

Instead of being renewed in the late 60’s, it seems that the democracy vision became increasingly stuck in place. The presidential election of 1968, for example, was fought out between the old-school liberalism of Hubert Humphrey and the old-school conservatism of Richard Nixon — both of whom seemed determined to pretend that science-and-democracy was still a going concern. Meanwhile, the hippies and anti-war protesters just stood on the sidelines, watching the trainwreck.

I finally concluded that as soon as the science-and-democracy partnership collapsed, confidence in democracy all but evaporated as well. It was this near-total breakdown of both halves of the dominant partnership that made the late 60’s so liberating for some and so threatening for others.

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As I was finishing up the previous entry, it struck me that we ought to be noticing the first signs of a successor to holism around now — and in trying to think of possible examples, I was reminded of a paradox I’ve been wrestling with for the past several weeks.

Last month, I quoted Mario Savio’s famous address during the Sproul Hall sit-in at Berkeley in 1964: “That brings me to the second mode of civil disobedience. There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus – and you’ve got to make it stop!”

I assumed that Savio had come up with this image of the government as a out-of-control machine specifically to evoke the tension between a faltering science-and-democracy partnership and the disruptive power of chaos. But it also occurred to me that if I was looking for insight on the emergence of the chaos vision, it would be worth checking out what Henry David Thoreau had said about civil disobedience when he invented the concept in the 1840’s as a means of protesting slavery and the Mexican War.

So I dug up a copy of “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), and to my astonishment I found Thoreau writing, “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth — certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

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It’s not easy to introduce a new vision that goes against the grain of all conventional assumptions. Especially in fiction, it may be necessary to smuggle much of it in under banners that read “this is only a joke” and “don’t take this too seriously.”

That was more or less what Horace Walpole did when he offered intimations of the chaos vision in The Castle of Otranto to a generation living under the sway of reason. He had to pretend that he was just doing his best to accurately represent a superstitious past era and explain apologetically that “belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages, that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the times who should omit all mention of them.”

Walpole’s pretense of embarrassment over the prodigies which were the very heart of his story might seem laughable now — except that Alexei and I did something very similar in “The Sons of Prometheus” when we located our man of wisdom on a backward and superstition-ridden colony planet. The hapless do-gooder from the ships might gain insight from contact with such a man, but he could never share his beliefs or understand the source of his wisdom.

In the same way, it was possible to imply strange beliefs on the part of a wacky alien like Torve the Trog, but only as long as there was no chance Villiers would ever manage to fathom Torve’s thought-patterns, much less emulate them.

And yet, despite these barriers, the question of how someone with a late 20th century mindset might make the transition to a level of higher understanding became our chief preoccupation in one story after another through the early 70’s.

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Shortly after I wrote Alexei that fan letter on Star Well in October 1968, Richard Nixon was elected president — and from that point on, the world grew steadily darker and more paranoid.

Alexei had begun working on the third Villiers book by then, and where the first two had poured out of him quickly and easily, this one came slow and hard. It was darker as well — a story set entirely at night — and there was an air of doubt and apprehension underlying the wackiness. By the time he finished, just before our wedding that June, it was clear that to push on with the fourth book would only lead further in the direction of negativity, violence, and disintegration.

All we knew at the time was that real-world events were making it difficult to hold onto the light-hearted spirit these books required. But in retrospect, there was something deeper going on. The chaos vision, which had provided the central organizing principle for the Villiers books, was breaking down under pressure, falling into self-doubt and turning bleak and violent and increasingly paranoid.

Alexei was faced with a choice between two paths. One was to follow the chaos vision into decadence and despair, as so many did over those next few years. The other was to set chaos aside, along with the Villiers books, and focus instead on holism, multiculturalism, and the successor to chaos, all of which retained their idealistic sheen. And in the course of 1969-70, that was exactly what he did.

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I’ve generally been referring to the development of the 1960’s counterculture as if it was all one continuous process. However, it actually consisted of two very different phases, the first extending from 1961 to 1967 and the second from 1968 to about 1976.

The initial phase was dominated by the interaction of two factors. One was the loss of faith in the science-and-democracy partnership that followed the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of John Kennedy. The other was the ongoing realignment of chaos away from scientific materialism and towards holism.

Although they began independently, by 1964 these two factors had begun to interact with one another and create a positive feedback loop. As science-and-democracy collapsed, the science vision was increasingly discredited and its successor, the holism vision, was energized. This shift of cultural energy accelerated the turning of the chaos vision away from science and towards holism, and that in turn provided chaos with the energy and self-confidence to further challenge science-and-democracy.

Every part of this loop was important, but the most pivotal aspect was the rejection of the notion of a mechanistic universe in which nature, society, and even human beings could all be treated as physical objects and manipulated as if in a scientific experiment.

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