Higher Knowledge and Popular Culture

on November 9, 2011

I finished the previous entry with an expression of surprise at the idea that the first half of the 20th century might have produced an outbreak of higher knowledge as world-changing as those of the first millennium BC and the Renaissance. But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes — and I’m realizing that my doubts were based on nothing but my own prejudices.

One of those prejudices involves my dislike of the kind of American exceptionalism which proclaims that there has never been a time or place in the history of the world to equal the contemporary United States. I’ve always hated that attitude, and part of what drew me to the idea of historical cycles in the first place was a desire to demonstrate that whatever is happening here and now has happened many times before.

But setting the boosterism aside, there really was a great historical turning-point in the early 20th century that was centered in the United States. This was not due to any special American virtue, but was because the U.S. — like Classical Greece or Renaissance Europe — had the advantage of being on the periphery of the civilized world and therefore free of the most extreme forms of elite domination.

A more serious source of my doubts, however, was the fact that 20th century culture offers nothing to equal either the grandeur of the great philosophical and religious formulations of the ancient world or the brilliance of the art and literature of early modern Europe. The best American popular culture — whether pulp fiction, Hollywood films, or jazz — displayed an impressive blend of energy and grace, but it also suffered from a relative shallowness and superficiality.

I wrestled with that dilemma with for a week — until it finally struck me that this apparent shallowness was, as they say, not a bug but a feature.

My key insight was that the profound psychological liberation of the early 20th century required a rejection not merely of the rigid Victorian class system but of everything which served to maintain it — including its tradition of high art.

The most dazzling achievements of that tradition were technically sophisticated, aesthetically complex, and aimed at an an elite audience with the time and money to develop its artistic perceptions. That audience, however, rather than recognizing its privileged position, regarded its refined tastes as proof of an in-born spiritual superiority that justified its right to rule over the lower orders.

That was why it was essential for the 20th century to jettison the old elite culture. And it was not merely an artistic tradition which had to die, but the entire system of belief in which high art was a primary means for bringing the human mind closer to the Mind of God.

This kind of disengagement had happened before. The revelation vision had denied the possibility of physical contact with the spirit realm to disempower the god-kings. The reason vision had denied the possibility of divine intervention in worldly affairs to overturn the authority of church and state. And the chaos vision found it necessary to deny the very existence of a spiritual realm in order to revoke the privileges of the upper class.

That purposeful denial explains much of the apparent estrangement of the chaos vision from higher knowledge. It was not merely the “spiritual” basis of high art that chaos rejected, but any belief in morality, virtue, or personal enlightenment — because all of those had been hijacked by the elite to reinforce their own claims to moral superiority.

That said, however, the chaos vision was not entirely devoid of a connection to higher knowledge. It merely expressed that connection in broader strokes, and located it in areas of higher knowledge that the reason vision had neglected.

Every vision has unique strengths and weaknesses, and one of the greatest weaknesses of the reason vision was its attachment to rationality and to the notion that everything in life must ultimately fit together and make sense. The chaos vision trashed that expectation and replaced it with a liberating embrace of the irrational — which is to say, of the wild, multi-dimensional wackiness that higher reality presents when viewed from the limited perspective of ordinary reality.

A second limitation of the reason vision was its belief that higher knowledge was best attained through philosophical introspection and an appreciation of the sublime in art and nature. This was a formula tailored to the strengths of a leisured elite, and as a consequence it was exceptionally narrow. As early as the mid-19th century, a few writers had started to suggest that the sudden flashes of genius might represent an alternative form of knowledge superior to reason, and in the 20th century the emerging chaos vision would whole-heartedly embrace this concept of intuition.

These two core premises — cosmic wackiness and the intuitive powers of the unconscious mind — have been the hallmarks of the chaos vision, but there is a third factor that is nearly as important. That is the chaos vision’s insistence on social leveling and its absolute irreverence towards all forms of authority.

I gave a detailed account of this aspect of chaos two years ago, in an entry titled “The Democratization of Higher Knowledge,” which centered on a discussion of early 1940’s Bug Bunny cartoons:

The secret of Bugs’ power is that he is not only a populist but a screwball — and that gives him the ability to operate from outside the system.

There had been foretastes of Bugs’ power to defy all normal social constraints in the wildly chaotic antics of the Marx Brothers. But the typical protagonists of 1930′s screwball comedies were wealthy eccentrics with the leisure and financial independence to indulge their whims.

Now that elitist bias was dissipating — and much of the change was due to the democratization of technology.

By the 1940’s, all the great new technological advances of the 20th century were becoming universally available — not just motion pictures and radio, but also those which had once been the province of the wealthy, like cars and telephones and electricity. This was giving rise to a world in which, for the first time in recorded history, the elite no longer held a monopoly of control over information and communication. …

The democratization of knowledge and capacity is also the key to Bugs Bunny’s power. Even when he is hanging out in a rabbit hole deep in the forest, Bugs is no timid woodland creature. He knows as much and can do as much as any of his antagonists, and that is almost invariably enough to give him an edge.

And finally, the democratization of higher knowledge is one of the factors that sets the chaos vision apart from the reason vision. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, masters of occult wisdom — both fictional and real — were typically aristocrats, or at least people of breeding and education, who were more inclined to seek power over the common folk than to share their secret knowledge with them.

In the chaos vision, however, those with access to higher knowledge can come from anywhere and be anyone, and there is no secret wisdom that can’t be discovered simply by asking the right questions.

These paragraphs make a number of interesting observations that I wasn’t prepared to develop at the time. One has to do with the crucial impact in the 1940’s of powerful new forms of communication — a point which is particularly striking, because something similar appears to be a factor in each fresh outbreak of higher knowledge.

In the first millennium BC, the radical new medium was the alphabet — a simplified writing system that broke the monopoly of the official priesthoods and made possible the rapid dissemination of information. In the fifteenth century, it was the printing press, which took books out of the hands of aristocrats and churchmen and handed them over to rabble-rousers and revolutionaries.

And in the early 20th century, it was a whole range of innovations — high-speed printing presses, film and sound recordings, radio and eventually television — that made the accumulated knowledge of the world instantly available to anyone.

What’s more, these new forms of communication did not merely liberate information. They also put their stamp on the chaos vision itself. If the reason vision imagined higher reality in the image of a private gentleman sitting down by lamplight for the thoughtful enjoyment of a good book, chaos saw it as more like the rowdy and uninhibited atmosphere of silent comedies, hot jazz, and the gaudy covers of pulp magazines.

But there’s a second idea casually tossed off in these paragraphs which I find even more thought-provoking: that Bugs “is not only a populist but a screwball — and that gives him the ability to operate from outside the system.”

I’ve been describing the masters of higher knowledge as shapers of reality who are able to exert control over ordinary folk. But the other aspect of their power is an ability to act as denizens of a higher realm, sliding effortlessly through the false realities that imprison the rest of us.

Bugs is a transcendent master of social engineering. He plays games with the perceptions of would-be adversaries, gets mobsters to share their take with him instead of rubbing him out, and can even double-shuffle Daffy Duck into yelling, “I demand you shoot me now!” He has the power to construct reality as he chooses and to follow paths through it that are invisible to anyone else.

And as such, this wacky latter-day trickster has to be considered as serious a guide to higher reality as any figure out of religion or high art.


A listing of all my posts on higher knowledge 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.

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