Clearing the Field

on May 3, 2012

In previous entries, I’ve suggested that a counterculture is born when the senior member of a dominant partnership is discredited, the partnership collapses, and the junior member is left demoralized and directionless. As I focus on the development of the holism vision in the early 20th century, however, I’m reminded that the collapse of a partnership is actually an extended and complex process.

For one thing, each dominant partnership undergoes a final revival during the period immediately preceding its collapse. At that time, the intellectual ferment and political turmoil of the “romantic break” die down, the younger visions are pushed to the margins of society, and there is an overwhelming desire for social stabilization and tranquility.

But it’s exactly that desire which leads to disillusionment with the partnership when it fails to make good on its promises of security.

Then, even after the senior vision has failed and brought the partnership down with it, the junior vision does not immediately relinquish its hold on the social consensus. Instead, lacking any external constraints on its authority, it becomes more arrogant and self-willed than ever — and the resulting moral void is what really triggers the start of the counterculture.

This dynamic can be seen on full display at the present moment. An initial crisis — the attacks of September 11 — provided the conditions for a final revival of the democracy-and-chaos partnership in something resembling its classic Reagan-era configuration. In the upshot, however, the Bush administration not only undercut democracy but helped bring on a second and more devastating crisis, the great financial meltdown of 2008.

Since then, the democracy vision has wilted and shriveled, leaving the chaos vision exclusively in control. And though this has led to a few positive accomplishments in the areas of social tolerance and inclusiveness, it has also incited the hyper-individualists of the Tea Party to irretrievably trash the traditions of democratic give-and-take.

Meanwhile, starting in 2009 and 2010, the signs of an oncoming counterculture were bubbling up around the edges. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a full-fledged countercultural period, with the younger visions all joining together to map out an image of another world.

A very similar sequence of events occurred in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. It began with the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, which set off a frenzied arms race and the rise of the military-industrial complex. Then the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, followed by Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, crashed the scientific-materialism-and-democracy partnership and unleashed a far more ambitious — and ultimately destructive — version of the democracy vision.

The period from 1963 to 1965 is very comparable to 2009-11. In those years, the United States enacted such democratic landmarks as Medicare and the Civil Rights Act, but at the same time it launched a CIA rampage in the name of democracy that included numerous right-wing coups, the indefinite imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, and the killing of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian communists.

The anti-Vietnam War movement and the psychedelic counterculture both arose out of the abuses and contradictions of those years, and both crystallized in 1965 around a sense of alternative human possibility based on chaos-energized-by-holism.

There were, however, distinct limitations to the initial 1965-67 phase of the counterculture. It was highly effective at critiquing the failed scientific materialism vision for its rigidity, uptightness, and desire to dominate the world through brute force — but it had nothing more substantial than flower power to set up against the tanks and guns of democracy-gone-bad

The frustrations of 1967-68 generated a wave of profound cynicism and despair, but they also sparked the counterculture’s second, “Whole Earth Catalog” phase, which was based on holism plus horizontalism. It appears that the only thing which can stand up against an increasingly repressive older vision is a new vision of the same type — and in the late 60’s, horizontalism filled that role.

In precisely the same way, holism came to lead the opposition to scientific materialism during the counterculture of the 1910’s — and this means that the 1960’s and the present day can provide a template to understand the complex relationship between those two visions a hundred years ago.

Between about 1908 and the start of World War I in 1914, the reason-and-scientific-materialism partnership enjoyed its own final revival. The hectic speculation and studied decadence of the 1890’s lost their appeal, Art Nouveau went out of fashion, and society became enamored of progressive political reforms and the Model T Ford.

There were also persistent hints in those years of the emerging values of chaos-plus-holism — from the stirrings of abstract art to women’s abandonment of the corset to the hot new rhythms of ragtime — but these could easily be dismissed as matters of frivolous amusement.

Even though the outbreak of the war can be seen in retrospect as the crisis that discredited the reason vision and toppled the dominant partnership, it was still possible at the time to view the conflict as a defense of the high ideals of civilization against the forces of barbarism. It was only as the the war dragged on — and as science became associated with poison gas and other terror weapons rather than with shiny new motor cars — that disillusionment with the embattled partnership became pervasive.

The crucial turn towards the new pairing of chaos and holism might be be dated to late 1916 and early 1917. That was when the Dadaists of Europe adopted an absurdist style of art, intended to protest the insanity of war by deliberately embracing irrationality. And a few months later the first jazz recording was released in the United States, introducing a style of music related to ragtime but even wilder and hotter.

Holism, however, was harder to express than chaos — not least because the previous eight years had witnessed a sustained effort by mechanistic biologists to eradicate vitalism from their field of study by recasting it in strictly material terms.

The centerpiece of that effort was the modern science of genetics, which was born in 1900 with the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work on hereditary characteristics. Over the next few years, a theory was developed that “genes” located on the chromosomes within each cellular nucleus must serve as the carriers of Mendelian characteristics, and in 1907 or 1908, Thomas Hunt Morgan embarked on his famous series of experiments with fruit flies to prove the validity of that belief.

By the time Morgan and his colleagues published The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity in 1915, they had not only validated genetic theory but had demonstrated to their own satisfaction that evolution was the result of “mutations” in the genes that could be produced by X-rays and other simple physical agents.

That was a devastating blow to vitalism. As recently as 1907, Henri Bergson had argued in Creative Evolution that a mysterious √©lan vital was necessary to explain evolutionary change. But now Morgan was claiming that he had discovered “the mechanism” of evolution in the form of impersonal cosmic forces — which as well as refuting Bergson even did away with the limited degree of individual initiative that had still been present in Darwinian survival of the fittest.

Morgan, however, was not the most notorious mechanistic biologist of his day. That honor belonged to his long-time friend, Jacques Loeb, who twenty years earlier had encouraged Morgan to start pursuing purely physical and chemical explanations for the development of organisms.

Loeb was a German Jew who had immigrated to the United States around 1890 to escape the reactionary politics and increasing anti-Semitism of his native country. He perceived vitalism as furnishing a metaphysical justification for those regressive modes of thought, particularly despised Bergson — whom he regarded as a charlatan — and displayed a missionary zeal for the promotion of mechanistic materialism, which he believed was the surest means of promoting political and social reform.

Loeb’s determination to apply an engineering approach to biology stemmed from the influence of Ernst Mach, with whom he had engaged in an extensive correspondence from 1889 to 1891. It was not until 1912, however, that Loeb had sufficient scientific evidence in hand to publish “The Mechanistic Theory of Life,” in which he argued that life was nothing more than a physicochemical phenomenon and that consciousness itself was an illusion.

“Since Pavlov and his pupils have succeeded in causing the secretion of saliva in the dog by means of optic and acoustic signals,” Loeb wrote, “it no longer seems strange to us that what the philosopher terms an ‘idea’ is a process which can cause chemical changes in the body.”

By taking mind entirely out of the picture, Loeb was aiming at an ultimate refutation of the premises of the reason vision. But in order to do so, he had to draw not only on Pavlov’s experiments but also on the recent discovery of a system of chemical messengers — hormones and enzymes — which are produced throughout the body and which in turn exert an influence on the entire body.

By arguing in those terms, rather than locating life processes in individual cells or organs, Loeb was venturing out of the reductionist framework that had been central to scientific materialism and into what would soon become the province of holism. And he reinforced the point four years later in a second monograph, titled “The Organism as a Whole.”

So it seems that by 1916, an almost mythic reversal had occurred. Materialistic science had slain the dragon of vitalism — but in the process of reducing living organisms to engineering components like genes and hormones, it had almost imperceptibly swapped its former mechanistic and atomistic bias for the vitalistic focus on pattern, design, and complexity.

And these new concepts of Morgan and Loeb were precisely what the holism vision needed to move beyond the stage of mystical intimations and become an intellectually credible philosophy.

(To be continued)


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here and a listing of my posts on the emerging counterculture 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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