The Birth of a Vision, Reconsidered

on March 29, 2012

In the course of doing the previous entry, I stumbled on a surprising realization — that the first tentative seeds of each new vision are generated a full cycle before they take shape as a distinct entity. This has undercut some of my long-held assumptions about the dynamics of countercultural periods, but it promises to replace them with a subtler and more fruitful paradigm.

When I initially developed my ideas about the cycle of visions, I assumed that the central narrative of every counterculture involved the loss of faith in a dominant partnership and the coalescing of opposition around the next vision in the sequence. I derived this template from the 1960’s, which I perceived as a heroic struggle by the forces of chaos against the increasingly repressive tendencies of scientific-materialism-and-democracy.

That remained my working model when I started this blog. I soon added an additional level of complexity, however, as I concluded that the explosive burst of cultural energy which marks the onset of every counterculture must be a by-product of the liberation of the countercultural vision from the influence of the dominant partnership and its realignment towards the vision one junior to itself.

In this revised model, I identified the foundations of the 60’s counterculture as having been established between about 1958 and 1962, when a few visionary writers and musicians began to associate chaos with holism rather than scientific materialism. This new way of thinking then swept through the culture at large when the dominant partnership was discredited in 1964-65.

I still believed, however, that holism had played a merely catalytic role and that chaos had provided the energy source for the counterculture and had produced its most radical new ideas, some of which coalesced as the creative imagination vision when chaos narrowed down in the 1970’s and became more conventional

But even that second model has proved inadequate over the past few months, as I’ve watched the rise of Occupy Wall Street and realized that the source of its psychic energy is not holism but horizontalism. Horizontalism is what gives the movement its unshakeable faith in the possibility of a better world — and is also what makes OWS such a credible threat to the failing democracy vision.

Aspects of holism are certainly present in the new counterculture, but their role is functional and not inspirational. The internet, social media, and even the Anonymous hivemind would appear trivial and lacking in transcendence without horizontalism to energize them and provide them with a sense of higher purpose.

And this suggests in retrospect that the psychedelic drugs of the 1960’s were just as functional — and that their primary function was to whack a bunch of late 20th century materialists upside the head and open their eyes to the wonders of a holistic cosmos.

That was far from obvious at the time. The assumptions of the chaos vision were familiar and easily communicated, while the more profound insights of holism were still largely ineffable and something you had to “get.” It can be observed, however, in the differences between two accounts of Stewart Brand’s pivotal revelation of 1965 that I quoted a while back.

As described by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, published in 1968, “One day he took some LSD, right after an Explorer satellite went up to photograph the earth, and as the old synapses began rapping around inside his skull at 5,000 thoughts per second, he was struck with one of those questions that inflame men’s brains: Why Haven’t We Seen a Photograph of the Whole Earth Yet?”

Rapping synapses, inflamed brains — that’s the chaos vision, for sure.

In contrast, a recent book on “How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry” presents the same event as a holistic epiphany — and probably comes closer to Brand’s own recollections of his experience:

“Brand had come upon the idea of a ‘Whole Earth’ … after hearing a lecture by Buckminster Fuller. … Having taken ‘a few mikes of LSD,’ Brand was suddenly struck by the fact that the city’s buildings were not laid out in perfect parallel lines. It seemed to him that, since the surface of the earth was curved, they actually must diverge just slightly. And then it occurred to him that despite the fact that satellites had been circling the earth for almost a decade, he had never seen a photograph showing the entire earth’s surface.”

And there are other reasons for believing that holism, not chaos, was the real heart of the 60’s counterculture. Holism was becoming a source of strange notions by the late 50’s, while chaos was still tangled up with scientific materialism. Holism was the basis for the most spaced-out insights of the psychedelic era. And holism continued to be a center of intellectual ferment during the Whole Earth Catalog phase of 1968-76, when chaos was already going mainstream.

This same conclusion ties in with another recent recognition on my part — that what I had originally taken as an unprecedented reorientation of the senior countercultural vision towards the junior one is, in fact, merely the restoration of a longstanding association

When I first started tracing out the history of the visions, I believed that the earliest indications of chaos appeared around 1870, during the reason-and-scientific-materialism partnership, and that the new vision had arisen partially in response to the purposeless cosmos of scientific materialism. The shift towards holism in the 1960’s thus appeared to be an evolutionary leap of a sort that might be expected to generate novel ideas.

But I’ve since pursued the origin of the chaos vision back to the 1700’s and found nothing to indicate that its early development was influenced by scientific materialism. I’ve also realized that when chaos took on a more defined identity around 1870, it did so under the influence of the new-born holism vision. And I’ve found that even though chaos fell under the influence of scientific materialism starting in the late 1920’s or early 30’s, it never completely lost its affinity for holism.

In the previous entry, I suggested that the changes in scientific materialism during the counterculture of the 1840’s might be seen as a return to the “mechanical philosophy” of the 1600’s. In precisely the same way, the changes in chaos during the 1960’s can be seen as constituting a return to the sense of mystical participation in a living universe that was already present in Through the Looking-Glass and van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

But if chaos in the 1960’s was not actively generating new ideas — but was merely rejecting the accretions it had taken on since the 1930’s and attempting to reclaim its earlier identity — then what was the source of the alternative possibilities that coalesced in the 1970’s as the creative imagination vision?

That is the question I unwittingly answered in my previous entry, when I suggested that the first seeds of a vision’s successor are sown during the counterculture in which it is the junior member and at the peak of its creative powers.

I’ve been thinking about the mechanism that might be involved, and I believe it involves an attempt on the part of the junior vision to reinvigorate the senior vision — which has been through many changes and has lost touch with its original sources of transcendent inspiration — by encompassing it within its own area of higher knowledge.

This is a subtle and complex process, which I have previously described as an “alchemical marriage” — but the dynamics are pretty clearly on display in the early 1700’s, when there was just such a marriage between reason and scientific materialism.

During the final years of the 17th century, the reason vision had lost its ability to claim direct access to higher knowledge. The new doctrine of empiricism — the insistence that all knowledge without exception is the product of sensory experience — was quickly taking hold and undermining faith in the possibility of knowing the Mind of God through pure philosophical introspection.

At the same time, materialistic science was going from strength to strength, climaxing with the publication of Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation in 1687. It seemed that the boundaries of human knowledge were limitless — but only so long as that knowledge was confined to the physical universe.

This situation, which posed a dilemma for both visions, was resolved by an inspired synthesis in which it came to seem obvious that the human mind could know the Mind of God by comprehending the God-given design of material Creation.

That synthesis began to develop in the 1710’s and seems to have been complete by 1727, when Newton died and the poet Alexander Pope famously offered as his epitaph, “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.”

The resulting focus on the abstract patterns underlying the visible surface of Creation would have the eventual outcome of leading to the holism vision. In the short run, however, the attempt to amalgamate reason and scientific materialism was deleterious to both.

The effect upon reason was to limit its scope to things that could be scientifically proven — which is why the chaos vision was born in the early 1700’s as a means of accommodating all the weird, irrational byways of the human mind that reason could no longer acknowledge.

But the integrity of the scientific materialism vision was also weakened when it took on a quasi-religious role for which it was not naturally suited. And this loss of focus — followed by the vision’s subordination to the hierarchy-and-reason partnership in the late 1700’s — would bring scientific materialism by the 1840’s to the position of senior countercultural vision, lacking in transcendence and ripe to spin off its own successor in the form of holism.


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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