Living in the Material World

on March 22, 2010

As I was finishing up the previous entry, it struck me that we ought to be noticing the first signs of a successor to holism around now — and in trying to think of possible examples, I was reminded of a paradox I’ve been wrestling with for the past several weeks.

Last month, I quoted Mario Savio’s famous address during the Sproul Hall sit-in at Berkeley in 1964: “That brings me to the second mode of civil disobedience. There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus – and you’ve got to make it stop!”

I assumed that Savio had come up with this image of the government as a out-of-control machine specifically to evoke the tension between a faltering science-and-democracy partnership and the disruptive power of chaos. But it also occurred to me that if I was looking for insight on the emergence of the chaos vision, it would be worth checking out what Henry David Thoreau had said about civil disobedience when he invented the concept in the 1840’s as a means of protesting slavery and the Mexican War.

So I dug up a copy of “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), and to my astonishment I found Thoreau writing, “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth — certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

Thoreau’s words posed a major puzzle for me. In 1849, the science vision was just coming into its countercultural peak, so why would Thoreau already be using urging his readers to “stop the machine” as a metaphor of resistance to injustice? I couldn’t figure that out, so I set the problem aside for a time.

It’s only now, after writing about how chaos was already displaying both positive and negative aspects during the 1960’s, that I’ve realized the same must be true of every counterculture. The adherents of the 60’s counterculture valued the individualism and mystical leanings of chaos but feared its egotism and violence — which is why the final stages of the counterculture moved away from chaos and towards holism and multiculturalism.

In the same way, a transcendentalist like Thoreau would have valued the scientific vision in its aspect of Nature but feared it in its aspect of the Machine. And because he could not evade machine civilization permanently by ducking out to Walden Pond, he turned instead to the new assumptions of democracy-touched-by-chaos and used those to arrive at the concept of “civil disobedience.”

By the early 20th century, Thoreau’s metaphor of the Machine had become part of the public consciousness, together with the image of frail humans throwing themselves into the gears and either being crushed or bringing the entire juggernaut to a shuddering halt.

That image achieved its classic representation in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), but it was already a bit old-fashioned by then, and it increasingly faded out as the science-and-democracy partnership took hold. The attitude of the 1940’s and 50’s towards the machine is far more accurately expressed by Isaac Asimov’s concept of the obedient robot, flawlessly engineered to serve humanity.

It was only in the 1960’s, with the failure of the science vision, that the image of the out-of-control machine came to the forefront again. It has remained there ever since — along with a great deal of enthusiastic smashing, crashing, trashing, and general monkey-wrenching meant to jam up the works. It seems as though the cogs of machinery have become a permanent symbol of tyranny and oppression.

Except …

… except …

… except for the steampunks and their damn gears.

The steampunks love gears. They embrace gears. They totally adore gears. They see gears as beautiful and use them as jewelry and as decorations on their top hats. Their only reservation about gears is to worry that they’re becoming a cliche and are in danger of being co-opted by merchandisers.

There’s a serious semiotic gap there, one wide enough to sail a zeppelin through. And since it can’t be explained away, the question is what to make of it.

One possibility is that we’ve simply come full circle since Thoreau’s day. Holism is finally sweeping away the last remnants of scientific materialism, so we have no reason to fear its symbols anymore but can shrink them down to fairy-size and scatter them about like pixie dust.

There may be a measure of truth to that, but it doesn’t explain why gears would do a complete 180-degree turn and become the symbol of a new movement. There has to be something else going on — and my best guess is that the “something” is an early intimation of the next scientific vision, the one that follows holism.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the fact that the first suggestions of creative imagination in the 1960’s mainly came out of the counterculture. It suggests that the counterculture not only pushed chaos to its limits but was also the chief source of the impulse to go beyond chaos to a new understanding of inner experience.

If that’s the case, then the counterculture which is now emerging can be expected to both take holism to its limits and also strive to transcend it. And there are signs that this is already happening.

One of the most consistent characteristics of holism has been its determined immateriality. Not since the Middle Ages have we had a culture as scornful of the material world as at present, or as ready to equate it with corruption and superficiality.

This contempt for materiality is particularly apparent in terms of design, where the impulse to dematerialize physical form may have peaked in the 1990’s with see-through plastic computers and automobiles that looked as insubstantial as paper airplanes. But it’s also deeply rooted in holistic philosophy.

As I noted some while back, the early 20th century proto-holists were convinced that, in the words of J.B.S. Haldane, “mechanism, life, and personality belong to different categories constituting a genuine hierarchy.” Holism has come a long way from its elitist roots of a century ago, but it has never completely shaken off that hierarchical assumption. We still tend to assume that life has more value than non-living matter and mind more value than either — and also that people who work only with their minds are innately superior to people who work with their hands.

This is why global warming deniers can successfully paint someone like Al Gore as an elitist. Climate change may be a genuine threat — but the holism vision itself has always had a persistent air of too-good-to-get-my-hands-dirty and not-in-my-back-yard.

And that is where the steampunks come in. The steampunks don’t merely love gears. They also love dirt and grease and all the signs of honest labor — and consider at least a few dark smudges essential to any proper mad scientist get-up.

If you’re a steampunk, dirt rocks.

But it isn’t just a matter of cosmetics. The highest steampunk goal is to be a “maker” — and their idea of making is rooted in the creative transformation of material objects, not just in shoving pixels around on a screen.

This concept of transforming materiality is crucial, because it’s precisely what creative imagination needs to carry it beyond the stage of hints and intimations. Just as the chaos vision required a touch of holism to emerge in the 1860’s, so creative imagination will need a touch of the successor to holism before it can become a fully-fledged vision.

One early foretaste of such a development may be the image I keep coming back to — of transcendence as a force that pours through the gaps in reality provided by creative individuals and transforms materiality into something higher and finer.

That’s certainly a definition of creative imagination — but it only works if you recognize materiality not as inert matter but as holding within it a spark of divinity that gives it the potential for creative transformation.

I’ve been picking up indications of just such a shift in attitude for several years now. One of the clearest is the recent popularity of fashion and cooking competitions on television — from Project Runway to the various offshoots of Iron Chef — along with a heightened status for both vocations.

Clothing and cooking are particularly interesting areas of focus because they are perhaps the most ancient of human arts. Their roots go back at least 180,000 years, to the human ancestors who first discovered the alchemical powers of fire and the uses of personal adornment.

Both are centered on the human body and both remind us that we are physical beings with physical appetites — while at the same time, they demonstrate the potential for channeling those appetites into something higher than mere survival and reproduction.

And those are just the possibilities that occur to me offhand. There are surely others which will be emerging over the next several years, reinforcing one another, and gaining in intensity.

Stay tuned for further developments.


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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