Triads of Transcendence

on June 25, 2013

I wasn’t altogether satisfied with the previous entry, and though I’ve done some rewriting to tighten it up, it still has one major flaw: It presents the birth of a successor to the transformation vision and the split within the kinship vision as if they were two separate events, when they were actually the product of a single, interconnected movement of thought.

This is something I only realized as I began the current entry, and though I’m still working out the implications, two points are already clear. One is that in order to maintain our engagement with higher knowledge, we need access to fully transcendent visions of all three types at once. The other is that this access is so crucial that whenever the transcendence of a vision is at risk, we will leap to restore it — or if it is lost despite our efforts, we will quickly devise a substitute.

Like everything involving higher knowledge, our need to draw on each type of vision simultaneously is something of a mystery, but it appears to result from the inadequacies of human perception. Because we are unable to grasp existence as a whole, we rely instead on three separate streams of knowledge — scientific, social, and inner experience. However, none of these is designed to facilitate profound understanding, and they all suffer from unavoidable blind spots and distortions.

Our best solution has always been to observe reality through the lens of all three modes in combination. Not only does this provide a more complete picture, but the effort to resolve the contradictions among them pushes us into the intuitive and integrative thought processes typical of higher knowledge. For that reason, the three newest and most transcendent visions regularly operate as a triad.

Every such triad is the source of its culture’s most radical and innovative art, philosophy, and politics — but only until its senior member goes mainstream and surrenders its transcendence, Then the triad disintegrates, as happened at the end of the Sixties when the counterculture flew to pieces. The result is a period of fragmentation and existential dread, during which life may come to seem hollow and purposeless — but that very despair provokes the necessary response.

During the reorganization that follows, the vision that has gone mainstream is reluctantly abandoned and gives way to its own successor. The next vision in line is pulled back from its slide towards trivialization. And as the climax of this process, these two visions are aligned not only with each other but also with the youngest member of the former triad, which has remained largely isolated during the period of maximum tumult.

This set of changes comprises the “interconnected movement of thought” that I referred to above. It is a subtle and complex process, guided at every step by higher knowledge, and its stages are not easy to follow — in part because they occur simultaneously, with no clear sequence of cause and effect, but also because they are enacted chiefly on the level of symbol and myth.

For those reasons, I would like to part company with our Paleolithic ancestors for the moment and review the key elements of this process as they played out in the 1920s and early 30s — a period which affords a high degree of historical clarity because its events and leading figures are still recognizable but are not bound up in current controversy.

In 1920, the triad of democracy, chaos, and holism that had been at the leading edge of Western thought since the 1860s was in the process of falling apart. The direct cause was the mainstreaming of the democracy vision, an event whose onset can be precisely dated to the year 1917.

On April 2 of that year, President Woodrow Wilson famously hauled the United States into World War I on the pretext that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” And just two months later, Wilson and Congress made a mockery of that pledge by enacting the Espionage Act of 1917, whose explicit purpose was to suppress all domestic opposition to the war.

The intended message was that the democracy vision was now a tool in the hands of the elite and more radical alternatives would no longer be tolerated. This was reconfirmed after the war by the anti-radical Palmer Raids of 1919-20, and in the decade that followed, economic growth, consumerism, and advertising slogans increasingly took the place of genuine democratic institutions.

This coopting of the democracy vision was a particularly harsh blow because it undercut the concept of progress which had served as the conceptual glue that held together the triad of visions. The Progressive Era of the teens was inspired by a faith that improvements in society would elevate both human nature and the material conditions of life. The Lost Generation of the Roaring Twenties had no such illusions.

Without the mythic framework formerly anchored by the democracy vision, the two other members of the triad went off in opposite directions. The chaos vision, shorn of any social conscience, was reframed as a cult of unbridled self-indulgence, mingled with an underlying strain of world-weary futility. And the holism vision, although it remained pure and uncorrupted, became the province of ivory tower philosophers seeking an escape from the craziness of the modern world.

To get out of this hole several things were needed. Chaos had to be reclaimed from the flappers and the bootleggers and take on romantic and occult overtones. It also had to be generalized into a universal abstract principle that would provide the glue for a new triad, just as progress had for the old one. A successor to the democracy vision had to be devised, and both it and holism had to find their places within the overall mythic framework.

All of these adjustments occurred quite suddenly between about 1926 and 1928.

Perhaps the most important event of those years was the development of quantum physics, which reconciled chaos and holism on a cosmic level. The quantum universe was innately chaotic, particularly when contrasted with the deterministic cosmos of 19th century materialism. It was random and unpredictable, and the outcome of events was a result of chance rather than unshakeable natural laws. But that element of random variation also made it possible to see the universe as a realm of infinite possibility, dominated by the emergent properties of life and consciousness.

However, the final steps in the reorientation — the presentation of this universe in dramatic form, the emergence of a new socially-based vision, and the formation of a triad encompassing all three visions — could only take place on the level of myth. It is therefore no coincidence that these same years witnessed the birth of science fiction.

The first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, was launched in 1926. It relied initially on reprints of classic material, but when it begin to offer original stories in 1928-29, these were very different from the older scientific romances.

The most striking difference was that the new stories were typically set in the future and outer space rather than on present-day Earth. This broader universe was the natural domain of chaos and holism. It was a place of constant change, where nothing remained fixed for very long, and it was overflowing with intelligent life.

The chaos-derived concept of change would be the touchstone of the succeeding era, the justification for every kind of marvel and the measure of human adaptability and tolerance. And its natural corollary was the newborn horizontalism vision, which made it possible to imagine human beings as thriving in such a universe.

The building-blocks of horizontalism had been bubbling up around the fringes of the culture for at least a generation. Most significant was the frontier ethic, as presented in endless cowboy stories, with its combination of self-reliance, mutual aid, broad egalitarianism, an absence of formal state institutions, and at least grudging respect for Native Americans.

Since the closing of the frontier in the 1890s, these virtues had become the stuff of nostalgic story-telling rather than a living reality. But now it became possible to recognize them as precisely the qualities that were needed to flourish on the new frontiers of space and time.

The new mythic synthesis of chaos, holism, and horizontalism was already present in the most ground-breaking stories of the late 20s, but it came fully into its own in the subgenre of space opera, which crystallized between about 1930 and 1933.

These tales of hard-bitten asteroid miners, bloodthirsty space pirates, and heroic adventurers were infused from the start with a belief that out on the moons of Jupiter, earthly status was irrelevant and all that counted was an ability to cope with the unexpected. You could even be the last survivor of a vanished Martian civilization, a fishlike Venusian with gills and webbed fingers, or an eight-foot-tall robot, as long as you were a useful member of the team.

The importance of horizontalism to the new mythic triad is pointed up by the contrast between space opera and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories of the same period. Lovecraft’s universe was an extraordinarily elegant synthesis of chaos and holism — which is one reason it still has appeal — but his elite hysterics were all too easily driven to madness by discovering their own insignificance in the cosmic scheme of things.

Space opera has been much derided, but it was the perfect expression of the new triad of visions. Within its premises, chaos, holism, and horizontalism were woven together seamlessly to create possible worlds that lay far beyond the boundaries of Depression-era America and yet appeared attainable.

In short, it was doing what any triad of visions does when it performs its mythic function of connecting what might be with what is.

Read the Previous Entry: Fire Hackers and Cosmic Dreamers
Read the Next Entry: Reconsiderations

3 Responses to “Triads of Transcendence”

  1. allynh says:

    I’ve mentioned this before, but look at the wiki entry on Newton’s rings as an example of what you are talking about, and the video for the Incredible Shade Illusion! to further illustrate the concept.

    Newton’s rings

    Look at the image of Newton’s Rings and think about you, the Observer, shining the light of your attention on any subject. The act of learning/seeing a subject cause similar rings of constructive and destructive interference. Concepts and ideas pop into view or fade as you sharpen your focus. The more you learn of that specific subject, the less you can see alternatives. You get locked into a mindset.

    The same problem occurs when you shift your focus to try and bring your attention on objects that occupy the outer rings. As your focus changes, the objects around you, that you thought stood out, suddenly lose their immediacy, and new patterns come into being.

    Now watch this video a few times, and notice how the same square completely changes depending on the context. In other words, when the square is looked at in a “different light”, it utterly changes. HA!

    Incredible Shade Illusion!

    When you talk about how each Vision changes it is the same as watching that piece of paper change from white to grey and back again.

    – The paper didn’t change, the context did.

  2. allynh says:

    Here’s another great example. The sunset in all it’s glory, is already below the horizon.

    The setting Sun is one big optical illusion

    Hilarious QI Moment – Phil Jupitus Hates QI

    When the dominant vision “appears” to be in control it has already been superseded.

  3. allynh says:

    HA! I just realized, this also applies to sunrise not just sunset.

    Those sunrises that we all enjoy, bright, beautiful, yet the sun is still below the horizon. Both sunrise and sunset have us focusing on things that are not there.

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