Posts Tagged ‘holism vision’

So — it’s time to tackle holism.

I’m finding, however, that I can’t simply jump into the middle of the story. I need to start with holism’s predecessor, scientific materialism, in order to trace out where holism came from and the special problems it was designed to solve.

In the previous entry, I discussed the associations that each socially-based vision forms with the scientifically-based vision that comes before it and the inner experience-based vision that comes after. These relationships appear simple and obvious to us, because they derive from the built-in affinities that human societies share with the natural world and with the human mind.

Reconciling scientific and inner experience visions is far more difficult, however, because the physical universe and the realm of dreams, hallucinations, and mystical intimations are as far apart on the spectrum of human experience as it is possible to get. Not only do we run into philosophical contradictions if we try to take both of them at face value, but even the seemingly elementary question of how mind and matter interact remains a profound mystery.

And yet, despite these impediments, our abiding conviction that all our experiences must derive from a common source compels us to keep devising formulas that will allow us to regard these two aspects of existence as facets of a single reality.

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There’s much more going on during a romantic break, of course, than simply a new “shadow” vision popping up to reject the dominant partnership. The same spirit of opposition also infuses the emergent visions, provoking them to bring forth dreams of utopian alternatives to the existing order of things.

It seems as though every dominant partnership makes its most significant contributions during its initial phase, when it is focused on basic problem-solving. But as it shifts from innovation to consolidation, a kind of ruthless pragmatism takes over. That shift is what provokes the distinctive mixture of cynicism and frustrated idealism that marks the romantic break.

The science-and-democracy partnership, for example, was at its best during the New Deal years of the middle and late 1930’s — but with the onset of World War II, this period of social reform came to an end. Democratic freedoms became the stuff of wartime propaganda even as they were being suspended for the duration. By the end of the war, the United States and its allies had adopted policies, such as the bombing of civilians, that would have to be considered war crimes by any objective standard.

The equivalent moral breakdown for the democracy-and-chaos partnership occurred between about 1984 and 1987. It was marked by the Reagan administration’s illegal arming of the Contras, the Iran-Contra affair of 1985-86, the savings and loan scandal, and the “greed is good” mentality skewered in the 1987 film Wall Street.

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Of course, it’s more complicated than that.

It’s always more complicated than that — which is why I’ve been trying my best to say only what is absolutely necessary and not get lost in the details.

But there are important things I’ve left unsaid about the 1970’s — so let’s rewind a bit and consider what was going on during that painfully fragmented decade, during which everything seemed to be flying off in all directions.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the 70’s is by comparing them to the very similar period from the late 1910’s to the early 1930’s, when democracy and science were reshaped under the influence of chaos in a way that ultimately enabled them to come together as a new dominant partnership.

In much the same way, first chaos and then democracy were reconfigured in the 60’s and 70’s under the influence of holism, which acted as a catalyst in the process without being noticeably altered itself. This period of extreme fluidity began with the failure of the science vision around 1964-65 and concluded with the formation of the democracy-and-chaos partnership in 1976-77.

The first significant change was when the chaos vision broke away from the science-based assumption that there must be a single fixed standard of objective truth.

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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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There’s a new article at Washington Monthly, titled “Who Broke America’s Jobs Machine?” that I found quite interesting in itself — and even more interesting for the light it sheds on the visions. It indicates a major change of direction during Roosevelt’s New Deal, previously unknown to me, that appears to be directly related to the emergence of the holism vision in the late 1930’s.

Authors Barry C. Lynn and Phillip Longman argue that starting after World War II, the American economy served as a reliable job-creating machine, with innovative small businesses constantly providing new opportunities for employment and investment. This process was disrupted, however, when the Reagan administration allowed consolidation to take place in nearly all major industries, resulting by the 1990’s in the formation of monopolies and near-monopolies with no interest in innovation.

These corporate Goliaths, Lynn and Longman explain, feel no need to innovate because they find it easier to increase profits by jacking up prices or squeezing their suppliers. At the same time, their dominance inhibits the start-up of potential competitors, or else they buy them out before they can get established. The result is that the job market shrinks and investors have no place to put their money except into financial bubbles.

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Although I’ve been working at understanding the visions for many years, I’ve always tended to focus on the obvious stuff — the fully developed visions that define a culture’s institutions and self-image. This series of entries marks the first time I’ve looked really closely at emergent and proto-emergent visions, and the journey has been full of surprises.

For one thing, I keep discovering that tracing the visions back in time is a lot like falling down Alice’s rabbit-hole. You take a tumble into the abyss and then fall seemingly forever — only to land with a gentle bump at the bottom and find yourself confronted with even greater mysteries.

As I was finishing up the previous entry, for example, I realized that Lewis Carroll was not the only one wrestling with the concept of personhood around 1865-70. He may have taken the philosophical implications to a level of absurdity that no one else would have dared to contemplate, but he was far from alone on the quest.

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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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In the last few years before the 1960’s counterculture found its voice, a dawning sense of the universe as an all-embracing whole was already bubbling up into consciousness. It was still nothing that could be put into words but it was present on an intuitive level, and in 1963-64 it was being expressed more clearly in the music than anywhere else.

Surf music may have been the first to tap into the new holistic awareness, but a similar message was present in Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” — a technique epitomized by the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (1963) — and in the harmonies of early Beatles songs. (Not surprisingly, in 1966 the Beach Boys would fuse the wall of sound with surf rock in their groundbreaking Pet Sounds.)

By 1965, a recognition of the latent power in the music had inspired even Bob Dylan to go electric. But the new awareness was not yet accessible to everyone. The outraged folkies who thought Dylan had betrayed them didn’t get it — and neither did the clueless Time magazine intern whose interview of Dylan just before his first electric performance is believed to have inspired the classic line, “Something’s happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”

Right now, at the start of 2010, we’re coming close to the equivalent of that “Mr. Jones” moment, but we’re not quite there. Amazing things are about to happen, there is a sense of almost intolerable imminence — but they haven’t happened yet. And this time, of course, the primary vision will be not chaos but holism, which is in the process of moving away from an alignment with the failed democracy vision — and its model of progress through political reform — and into an alignment with the next social vision.

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Move a single piece in the kaleidoscope and all the rest shift in response — revealing new patterns so obvious you wonder how you missed them the first time. But until that one piece shifts, the pattern remains hidden.

Two months ago, in an entry titled “The Search for Meaning,” I discussed the transition that took place during the 1960’s from visualizing chaos in terms of old-fashioned scientific materialism to visualizing it in terms of holism.

In the hipster version of the chaos vision, the one which had grown stale and tired by 1963, chaos was identified with a universe of soulless atoms plowing blindly through empty space. It was that concept which resonated with black turtlenecks, heroin, abstract expressionism and cool jazz.

But the version of chaos that gave rise to the counterculture drew upon a new image of the universe as a web of energy in which everything flows into everything else. And that holistic embodiment of chaos found its own resonances in paisley and tie-dye, marijuana and LSD, psychedelic art and psychedelic rock.

I wasn’t wrong in my understanding of the transition — but I went astray in thinking that it began only after the rise of the counterculture. The realignment of chaos towards holism actually started several years earlier and was the catalyst which made the counterculture possible.

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I truly thought I’d be almost done with the 1960’s by now and ready to move on — but in the course of writing the last several entries, I realized I didn’t know nearly as much about how countercultures get started as I thought I did. That’s something I need to sort out.

I’ve believed for years that the 60’s counterculture emerged directly out of earlier, more tentative expressions of the chaos vision and differed from them mainly in being energized by the decline of the science-and-democracy partnership. That image of energization was what I had in mind when I suggested (in “Moral Agents“) that each vision generates the seeds of its successor during its countercultural peak, because it grows over-confident then and starts to run up again its own limitations and moral weaknesses.

But as I worked on the succeeding entry (“The True Voice of Chaos“), I found myself saying something very different — that the first hints of discontent with the reason vision had been based not on morality but on boredom and that they had appeared as early as the 1730’s, prior to the peak of the reason-based counterculture.

As I thought about that, it occurred to me that perhaps each counterculture begins not as a mere amplification of what has come before but in an attempt to reinvigorate a vision that has already begun losing intensity and mystery as it gains mainstream acceptance.

Was there any suggestion of that happening prior to the rise of the 60’s counterculture? Indeed there was. Around 1962-63, the year that I was finishing high school and preparing to head off to college, the chaos vision appeared to have gone distinctly flat. Rock ‘n’ roll was dead, Hollywood hipsters like Frank Sinatra seemed outdated and irrelevant, and even the beatniks were past their glory days of the late 50’s.

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