Solve et Coagula

on September 3, 2013

I’ve spent most of the last year wrestling with one specific question: how the cycle of visions began and what keeps it going. I sometimes wonder whether I’ve become too narrowly obsessed with this one issue, but I don’t see any way past it. My goal is to present a coherent theory of human history, not just an eccentric set of speculations, and for that I need a plausible mechanism.

In the previous entry, I hit on something I think is very important — that the birth of the spirit vision came about when the first true shamans found themselves completely alienated from their larger society. To rectify that, and to prove they weren’t crazy, they needed a model of reality that would verify their perceptions and make it possible to communicate them to others.

My initial assumption was that this extreme degree of alienation must have been a one-time-only event, because each new vision since then has emerged from a predecessor of the same type. But as I thought about it, I realized that the same situation arises whenever the romantic aspect of the outsider vision has been marginalized and demoralized to the point where it no longer serves as a vehicle for higher possibility. That leaves its adherents as isolated and unable to explain themselves as any shaman of 250,000 years ago.

Here’s a recent example. In August, 2010, British poet and activist Paul Kingsnorth published an essay titled “Confessions of a recovering environmentalist.” In it, he recounted his twenty-year history of romantic environmentalism and posed the question of “why the magic is dying.”

I became an “environmentalist” because of a strong emotional reaction to wild places and the other-than-human world: to beech trees and hedgerows and pounding waterfalls, to songbirds and sunsets, to the flying fish in the Java Sea and the canopy of the rainforest at dusk when the gibbons come to the waterside to feed. From that reaction came a feeling, which became a series of thoughts: that such things are precious for their own sake, that they are food for the human soul and that they need people to speak for them to, and defend them from, other people, because they cannot speak our language and we have forgotten how to speak theirs. …

But these are not, I think, very common views today. Today’s environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives, from science to education. We are not environmentalists now because we have an emotional reaction to the wild world. … We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability”. … It means sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level which the world’s rich people — us — feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” which is needed to do so.

It is, in other words, an entirely human-centred piece of politicking, disguised as concern for “the planet”. In a very short time – just over a decade – this worldview has become all-pervasive. It is voiced by the president of the USA and the president of Anglo-Dutch Shell and many people in-between. The success of environmentalism has been total — at the price of its soul.

In terms of the cycle of visions, it’s apparent that Kingsnorth was distraught because the holism vision had been taken over by its practical side and become solely centered on human needs. It had lost its “magic” and its “soul” — which is to say, its transcendence — and could no longer effectively convey intimations of a higher reality.

Such moments of failure and despair are crushing to those who see their life’s work seemingly in ruins, and yet they play a crucial role in the cycle. They represent a dark night of the soul that puts everything in doubt and ultimately leads to the birth of a new vision.

However, the full sequence of events begins well before that moment of utter despondency. It starts when a dominant partnership becomes overly attached to maintaining things as they are and loses sight of whatever elements of higher knowledge went into its making. This prompts the outsider vision to offer itself as a center of objections and alternatives — which, in turn, causes the dominant order to feel under threat and become ever more rigid and repressive.

The latest such conflict can be seen in the repeated attacks on radical environmentalists and computer hackers that began with a series of raids and arrests in 1989-90 and have now reached a point of almost unimaginable viciousness. The inevitable outcome of this kind of repression is an escalating spiral of antagonism that ends only with the exhaustion of both parties. The dominant partnership unravels, while the adherents of the outsider vision are either crushed or subside into respectability.

But that is only what is happening on the surface. The deeper story involves the birth of a new vision — and the crucial turning-point in that story is the empire-strikes-back moment halfway through, when the outsider vision appears to have been so beaten down as to leave the dominant order with no effective opposition.

There’s an old saying that whenever a door closes, a window opens. If the door is an outsider vision that has been reduced to utter futility, then the window is the next vision in the sequence, which for the first time steps forward to take on a leading role.

In mid-December of 2009, when Paul Kingsnorth was watching the skies and wondering where the magic had gone, Private Chelsea Manning was going through her own crisis of alienation, inspired by both a revulsion against her involvement in the Iraq War and her personal gender issues. As described by Wikipedia, in the weeks that followed, “she began posting on Facebook that she felt hopeless and alone” and started downloading Iraq and Afghanistan War documents to her own computer.

Those documents made their way by subtle and secret means to Julian Assange, himself a product of the outlaw hacker culture of the late 1980s, and Wikileaks began releasing them in the summer of 2010, shortly before the publication of Kingsnorth’s essay. The following year Manning’s revelations helped incite the Arab Spring, which quickly inspired protests elsewhere, including those in the United States which climaxed with Occupy Wall Street. Since then, protest movement have risen and fallen one after another all over the world, going off like a string of firecrackers.

The vision that is fundamental to all these movements is not holism but horizontalism — a social vision based on direct democracy and a sense of global community — but holism has also been an important part of the mix. It has been energized as a result and given a new sense of hope, which over the next few years will spur it on to its final apocalyptic confrontation with the dominant order.

At the same time, however, the holism vision has begun to undergo a strange transformation.

In January 2010, just as Manning was making her desperate leap of faith, I was writing about what had happened in the early 1960s when a badly dispirited chaos vision entered into an “alchemical marriage” with holism and gained a reinvigorating sense of cosmic possibility. In the entry that followed, I asserted that we were on the brink of an equivalent moment with respect to holism and horizontalism and promised that “amazing things are about to happen, there is a sense of almost intolerable imminence — but they haven’t happened yet.”

At the time, I had only the fuzziest sense of the details of that imminent “alchemical marriage” — but I would say now that the key to the process is that holism has become a servant of the greater transcendence implicit in horizontalism. The ultimate result is that over the next few years, holism will be remade in two very different forms.

On one hand, the holism vision is never going to reverse its turn towards practicality, but that practicality is now being redirected to serve the horizontalism vision’s calls for environmental justice rather than the demands of governments and corporations. This means that by the time holism goes fully mainstream, it will have assumed the moral seriousness necessary to justify its leadership of society.

On the other hand, both the changes within holism and reactions to its continuing limitations are already establishing the foundations of a successor vision that will come into focus once holism surrenders its radical edge.

The crystallization of that successor is still several years off, but it is possible to make certain statements about what it may look like. The most obvious is that it will be very different from holism. It will take its central inspiration not from Nature but from the deepest mysteries of the physical universe.

It will incorporate the strange realities of quantum mechanics, the weird science of Nikola Tesla, and the practical do-it-yourself-ism of the Maker Movement. It will reflect the love of old-timey machinery that underlay the emotional appeal of both the gears that became the hallmark of the Steampunks a few years back and the fixed-gear bikes that were a hipster trope around the same time.

However, compared with the scientific materialism of the 19th century, which viewed the physical universe as inert and soulless, this new vision will have a more animistic quality. It will pick up valuable cues as to how to achieve this from the other two emergent visions. From horizontalism, it will take the message that it is necessary to show respect for all aspects of existence and not dismiss any of them as base and inferior. And from creative imagination it will receive the assurance that the essence of the material world is to be as alive and creative as we are ourselves.

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