A Small Adjustment

on March 21, 2016

I’ve been stuck for the past several months and haven’t done any new entries, but I’ve finally realized that I took a left turn at Albuquerque last summer and it’s been throwing me off ever since.

For anyone who’s just now dropping in on the discussion, my chief focus at this blog has been to lay out a theory of human history as driven by a sequence of differing visions of the nature of existence. Some aspects of that sequence are easy to identify. I can point to the visions currently at work in our society, and I can trace earlier visions back through history. But it’s never been clear to me just how the sequence would have first gotten started or how the intricate dynamic that keeps it going could have been set in motion.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve made some progress on that question. I’ve discovered that the dynamic behind the visions operates on two distinct levels. The visions themselves are intellectual constructs that combine the best knowledge of the time with a mystical sense of ultimate oneness. And because our best knowledge changes from era to era, new visions are born, gain cultural influence, then decay and lose coherence, and are finally discarded as unworthy.

But there is also a deeper instinctual rhythm that regulates the timing of this rise and fall, and that rhythm barely changes from one era to the next. It repeats over and over in a cyclical manner, with almost identical moods and attitudes recurring at the same point in every cycle, regardless of the specific visions involved.

The most fundamental division in that cycle is between extended periods of social stability and briefer periods of turmoil and fragmentation. The former are regulated by deep-seated norms involving home and family and the tamping down of disruptive interpersonal conflicts, while during the latter those norms are disrupted and society falls prey to bursts of violence and sexual exploitation.

These periods of turmoil are harrowing, but they are also when the visions develop most rapidly — which suggests to me that the visions first appeared as a means of accelerated problem-solving during phases of acute social breakdown. Older visions are discredited, younger ones come to the forefront and eventually new norms are established that combine the moral authority of the younger visions with the practical experience of the past.

This inaugurates a fresh period of stability, during which the youngest visions initially support the established order with their greater intellectual and philosophical authenticity. But gradually that order grows complacent and self-satisfied and starts to see itself as an all-in-all. That prompts the youngest visions to pull away and start defining sharp boundaries between themselves and their predecessors.

The resulting acts of personal and political liberation gradually come to be seen by the representatives of the established order as a threat to their dominance. They forcibly reassert control and repress the autonomy of the younger visions, which are partly demonized, partly coopted, and partly relegated to the margins of society.

During the phase that follows, life may appear placid and untroubled on the surface, but the dominant visions are becoming fossilized and unable to respond to crisis. So when a serious crisis does come along, society is thrown into a fresh period of turmoil — and the cycle begins again.

That is the scenario I’ve been working with for the past year in hopes that it would explain the birth of the very first visions. One of my reasons for thinking so is we are currently midway through a period of turmoil, and there are no visions capable of holding things together. The partnership between the democracy and chaos visions that has supplied our social norms since the 1970s is in a state of collapse, while the younger holism and horizontalism visions are not yet ready to assume the leadership of society.

As of early 2016, the formal institutions of democracy have ground to a halt. The assertions of personal freedom that have always been central to the chaos vision now serve only to justify the lawlessness of Wall Street bankers and sovereign citizens. The presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton is based on the hollow promise of a return to the final golden age of democracy-and-chaos in the 1990s, while that of Donald Trump thrives upon unconstrained sexual hostility and violence.

Meanwhile, the insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders is fueled by the three youngest visions — the ecological concerns associated with the holism vision, the calls for social justice that reflect the horizontalism vision, and the dreams of a better world that invoke the still-emerging creative imagination vision. No matter what happens in next fall’s election, those three visions represent the shape of the future.

And when the current period of turmoil draws to a close, the holism vision will join with a purified chaos vision to assume moral and political authority, while a brand new vision will be born out of all the radical bits and pieces that holism abandons as it turns respectable.

But although new visions always appear at a moment of exaggerated social collapse, they cannot develop further under those conditions. They need well-established earlier visions to both learn from and push back against as they define their own premises and implications.

So what would have served that role for the very first visions? I believe the key lies in what I’ve called the Vision of Everything.

This was a kind of non-intellectual prototype for the later visions. Going by its final vestiges in historical times, it was centered on the mysteries of birth and death, growth and decay. Its single organizing principle was a perception of motherhood as the common source of personal identity, social cohesion, and the bounty of the natural world. And it was grounded in an undifferentiated experience of Being, rather than in analytical categories and rules.

Last summer, I suggested that the Vision of Everything served as a source of raw materials for the later visions, with bits of it being nibbled away until there was nothing left. But now I’m convinced that was where I went astray — and that the Vision of Everything persisted even as the more modern visions arose.

The first true vision was the product of ancient geeks and hackers who engaged with the world in a radically new way. Their understanding of existence was based not on the ancient mysteries of growth and decay but on their mastery of tool-making, the use of fire, and the manipulation of strings and knots. All of these involved the transformation of one material into something completely different, and so they came to see transformation as the fundamental rule of life.

I envision them as brash young adolescents, off doing their own thing without interference from the wily old grandmothers who hoarded the secret wisdom of birth and death. Like hackers everywhere, they viewed the world as theirs to manipulate, and like adolescents in general they were prolific coiners of new words to express their unique perceptions.

They wanted to name everything, because naming was mastery. They expanded the human vocabulary from perhaps a few hundred words to a few thousand. But their elders, as always happens, professed themselves baffled by this incomprehensible new jargon and stuck loyally with the simpler language of their foremothers.

The latest evidence from fossils and DNA indicates that our own ancestors separated from those of the Neanderthals and Denisovans around 700,000 years ago. At that time the climate was extremely mild, and early humans for the first time expanded as far north as England, but it was immediately followed by a severe and prolonged ice age.

I would guess that these events served to fragment the human community, isolating the people who would become Homo sapiens somewhere in the Middle East or southern Asia. Even there, conditions during the ice age were harsh and food scarce, but instead of becoming cold-adapted like their cousins further north, they increased their understanding of their environment through a major shift in brain organization. And out of that evolutionary leap the transformation vision was born, perhaps crystallizing as the ice age came to an end around 600,000 years ago.

For nearly 200,000 years after that, there were only relatively minor downturns in the climate, which encouraged our ancestors to multiply and spread out. I’ve suggested in recent entries that this was when the first rebels and explorers appeared as a novel personality type who were not afraid to venture far afield, explore new worlds, and meet the neighbors. And the need to establish friendly relationships with people who were not children of the same grandmother inspired the idea of extending their capacity for categorizing and rule-making to human social interactions, so that every old woman might be treated as a grandma and every young contemporary as a cousin.

The outcome was a loose network of human communities with a capacity for mutual support — something the Neanderthals never achieved. This would have played an essential survival role during a brief but extremely severe ice age that set in around 430,000 years ago. And that period of crisis produced both the kinship vision and a further flowering of language, this time devoted to new ways of describing subtle relationships among both people and events.

Up to that point, there was none of the tension among visions that has since been a central feature of the cycle. The two new visions were on compatible terms with one another and were not in conflict with the continuing dominance of everyday life by the Vision of Everything. However, that was about to change.

Read the Previous Entry: An Age of Magic
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