Monday


In my Centauri Dreams post Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? I noted that it has become a contemporary commonplace that the emergence of superintelligent artificial intelligence represents the greatest existential risk of our time and the near future. I do not share this view, but I understand why this view is common. Testimony to superintelligence as an existential risk is the book Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom, who has been instrumental both in the exposition of existential risks and in the exposition of superintelligence.

Bostrom prefaces his book on superintelligence with a fable, “The Unfinished Fable of the Sparrows.” In the fable, a flock of sparrows decides that they would benefit if they had an owl to help them. One member of the flock, Scronkfinkle, objects, saying, “Should we not give some thought to the art of owl-domestication and owl-taming first, before we bring such a creature into our midst?” The other sparrows disregard the warning, upon the premise that they will first obtain own owlet or an owl egg, and then concern themselves with the control of the owl. As the other sparrows leave to find an owl, the fable ends:

“Just two or three sparrows remained behind. Together they began to try to work out how owls might be tamed or domesticated. They soon realized that Pastus had been right: this was an exceedingly difficult challenge, especially in the absence of an actual owl to practice on. Nevertheless they pressed on as best they could, constantly fearing that the flock might return with an owl egg before a solution to the control problem had been found. It is not known how the story ends, but the author dedicates this book to Scronkfinkle and his followers.”

Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford, 2016

Bostrom leaves the fable unfinished; I will provide one account of what happens next.

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The few sparrows who remained behind, despite their difficulties, settled on the plan that the best way to approach owl taming and domestication was by not allowing the owl to understand that he is an owl. They would raise any owl obtained by the sparrows to maturity as a sparrow, so that the owl would believe itself to be a sparrow, and so would naturally identify with the flock of sparrows, would desire use its greater strength to build better nests for the sparrows, would want to help with the care of both young and old sparrows, and would advise the sparrows even while protecting them from the cat. “This owl will be as sparrow-like as an owl can possibly be,” they asserted, and set about formulating a detailed plan to raise the owl as one of their own.

When the other sparrows returned with the enormous egg of a tawny owl, many times the size of a sparrow egg, the owl tamers were confident in their plan, and the returning sparrows with their owl egg rejoiced to know that the most advanced owl researchers had settled upon a plan that they were sure would work to the benefit of all sparrows. Several sparrows sat on the egg at the same time in order to evenly incubate the owl egg, and once the young owlet broke out of its shell, it immediately imprinted its sparrow mothers, who brought it seeds and small insects to eat. This was a challenge, as the large owlet ate much more than several sparrow chicks, and many sparrows had to be tasked in the feeding of their owlet.

The owlet grew, though it grew slowly, and certainly was not the most impressive specimen of a tawny owl, fed as it was an small seeds and small insects that were scarcely enough to satisfy its hunger. As the owlet grew, all the sparrows, overseen by the owl researchers, sought to teach the owl to be a good sparrow. Wanting to please his sparrow parents, the owlet tried to chirp cheerfully like a sparrow, to dust bathe with the other sparrows, and to hop around on the ground looking for seeds and insects to eat.

The plan appeared to exceed all expectations, and the owlet counted himself one of the flock of sparrows, never questioning his place among the sparrows, and already beginning to use this growing strength to aid his “fellow” sparrows. Until one day. The sparrows were together in a large flock looking for seeds when an enormous adult tawny owl suddenly descended upon them. The sparrows panicked and scattered, all of them flying off in different directions. Except for the owlet, for he, too, was a tawny owl, though he did not know it. He stood his ground as the great, magnificent tawny owl settled down, folded his feathers smoothly and seamlessly to his body, and looked quizzically at the little tawny owlet, who stood alone where moments before there had been hundreds of sparrows.

And what is this?” asked the large tawny owl, “An owl living with sparrows?” And then he gave a large, piercing hoot of the kind that tawny owls use as their call. The little owlet, a bit frightened but still standing his ground, replied with a subdued, “Chirp, chirp.” The large owl tilted his head to one side, perplexed with the little fellow, and also a bit put-out that one of his kind should behave in such a manner and be living with sparrows.

The large owl said to the little owlet, “I will show you your true nature,” so he picked up the owlet carefully but firmly in his powerful beak and flew the little owlet to a branch that hung low over a still pond. There he set the owlet down on the branch, and indicated for him to look down into the water. The still, smooth surface of the pond reflected the perfect likeness of the two tawny owls, one large, one small, so that as both looked down into the water they saw themselves, and for the first time the little owlet saw that he was an owl, and that he was not a sparrow. “You see now that you are like me,” said the large owl to the owlet, “Now be like me!”

Now,” said the large owl, “I will show you how an owl lives.” He took the owlet to his nest in the hollow of a tree as the sun was setting, and as the little owl flew behind the big owl he saw how beautiful the forest was in the low light of dusk. He perched at the edge of the hollow, and the large owl said, “Wait here,” then dived down into the growing darkness below. The little owlet realized that even in the dim light he could see the large owl swoop down and fly purposefully, but to some purpose the owlet did not yet understand.

Soon the large own returned, and he held in his claws a freshly killed bird, about the size of a sparrow (he had spared the owlet the agony of beginning with a sparrow). The little owlet felt sick to this stomach. He said to the big owl, “I’m hungry and I would like some seeds and insects please.” The large owl looked at him disdainfully. He held the dead bird down with one talon and ripped the body open with his beak. “This is owl food!” he said to the owlet as he gulped down a chunk of fresh meat. The big owl tears off another chunk of meat and says to the owlet, “Open your beak!” The little owlet shakes his head from side to side (finding that he can almost rotate his head all the way around when he does so) and tries to flatten himself against the wall of the tree behind him.

No, I want to eat seeds,” says the little owlet. The large owl will have none of it, and he forces the chunk of fresh meat down the maw of the little owl, who gags on the bloody feast (as all gag upon attempting to swallow an unwelcome truth) but eventually chokes it down. Gagging and frightened, the little owlet slowly begins to understand that he has now, for the first time in his life, encountered his true food, the food of owls, the only food that can nourish him and sustain him as an owl. For he has seen himself in the still water of the pond, and now knows himself to be an owl.

The little owlet attempts to hoot like a tawny owl, and though his first owl-utterance is a weak and sickly sort of hoot, it is the right kind of sound for an owl to make. The big owl looks down on him with growing satisfaction and says, “Today you are an owl. Now I will take you into the depths of the forest at night and we will hunt like owls and eat owl food.” While the little owl does not understand all that this means, he nods uncertainly and follows as the larger owl leaps into the darkness again.

What happens next in the Fable of the Sparrows has not been recorded, but one can conjecture that the owl researchers among the sparrows returned to their notes and their calculations, trying to understand where they had gone wrong, and attempting to form a new plan, now that their sparrow-like owl had been taken under the wing of a true owl.

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Readers familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell will immediately recognize that the myth I have here made use of is the Indian myth of the tiger and the goats from Campbell’s “The Occult in Myth and Literature” in The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959-1987.

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Saturday


The Harvesters, 1565,  Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“The Harvesters,” 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

What could explain the particularly brutal symbolic celebrations of mortality salience I described in Agriculture and the Macabre (notwithstanding the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy)? In my previous explorations of this idea I advanced no causal mechanism or explanatory framework for the prominence of the macabre in agrarian civilization, but further thought on this question has suggested a possible explanation, or, rather, a cluster of related explanations that bear upon unique features of agrarian civilization that differentiate it from other modes of human life.

Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is differentiated from the hunter-gatherer nomadism that preceded it both in its economic basis and its ideological superstructure, or, as I prefer to name the two, both economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure. For obvious reasons, the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (or EEA) of our hunter-gatherer ancestors differs radically from the settled life of agricultural peoples, and this alone would be sufficient to introduce a biologically-based discomfiture of settled peoples, whose way of life is essentially at odds with their instincts, the latter refined over millions of years, while their farming practices have at no point been in existence for a sufficiently long period of time to decisively shape the evolution of a species. There is, then, an existential mismatch between the economic infrastructure of the EEA and the economic infrastructure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

There is also a mismatch between the intellectual superstructure of agrarian peoples and nomadic peoples. Joseph Campbell frequently made the point that the mythologies of hunter-gatherer peoples differs profoundly from that of agricultural peoples. A hunting people needs to reconcile itself with the daily practice of killing, while agricultural peoples often have myths of sacrifice, because the agricultural cycle demonstrates that life comes out of death, so that to make more life, it is necessary to make more death. The cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is a function of the agricultural mythos of sacrifice, which regards the individual as dispensable, and the intrinsic interest the individual has in his own existence. This sacrificial mythology of settled agricultural peoples is the ultimate affront to individualism, and no matter how much justification and rationalization is deployed, this affront would have been felt by every individual within an agricultural economy at some level.

It is often claimed today that individualism is a social construct of Western Civilization that is not present in other cultures, or, at least, not present to the extent that it shapes western thought. Now, it certainly could be argued that the particular conception and understanding of individualism as we know it today is a result of contingent factors arising from industrial-technological civilization that first emerged in Western Europe. One could readily identify points along the seriation of western civilization at which the individual took on a particular importance — Periclean Athens, the value of each individual soul in the Christian tradition, Florence under the Medici, the priesthood of all believers in Protestantism, the American Revolution, and the special place accorded to individual celebrity in today’s winner-take-all society. However, the idea of the individual, and the presence of individualism in the human condition, is not limited to the particular expression given to individualism since the advent of industrial-technological civilization, nor is it specific to western thought.

Individualism has a biological basis. In a famous paper, “What is it like to be bat?” (to which I previously referred in What is it like to be a serpent?), Thomas Nagel wrote that, “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” We might similarly observe that there is something that it is like to be an individual. The kind of organisms that we are makes our individual bodies a locus of sensation, consciousness, and action. Each individual body is such a locus, sensing on its own, feeling on its own, acting on its own, and conscious of itself as an individual and as a unity. The very idea that there is something that we call the “human condition” is a reflection of the ontological individualism of human being.

One of the features of the human condition that has shaped the human mind most profoundly has been the loneliness of our individual consciousness. The existential loneliness of the self is a function of its emergence from a single brain, which is in turn a function of the kind of individual organisms that evolved on our planet. One might suggest many possible counterfactuals in relation to this isolation of the human condition, but the possibility of alternative forms of consciousness does not alter the individuality of our consciousness. The individuality of human conscious has issued in individualism as a social principle, realized in many different ways across different cultures. Egalitarianism is the social expression of the recognition of the individual as a locus of consciousness and agency. The egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer bands that dominated the vast bulk of human history before the recent emergence of civilization was in part a reflection of this biologically-driven individualism.

There is another counterfactual that interests me more at present than the counterfactuals of other forms of consciousness. Above I wrote, “farming practices have at no point been in existence for a sufficiently long period of time to decisively shape the evolution of a species,” and this is a statement that requires qualification. “Decisively” is the operative word in this context. Farming has undoubtedly shaped our species, but not yet decisively in the sense of resulting in speciation (keeping in mind that behavioral adaptation often precedes structural adaptation, so that the behavioral adaptation of farming might be expected, over a sufficiently long period of time, to give rise to structural adaptations). This suggests an interesting counterfactual, namely, an intelligent species that invents settled agriculturalism and maintains this way of life at a certain equilibrium (a high level equilibrium trap) for a biologically significant period of time, so that the species in question self-domesticates, and this domestication to settled agrarian life is reflected in changes in the genome — and perhaps also eventually in the phenotype.

Important qualifications need to be made to the above. We know from the fact that the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium does not hold that evolution is always occurring, even at a small scale that is only incrementally recognizable at in the genotype and phenotype. This is micro-evolution, and only results in cladogenesis over very long periods of time (more or less Darwin’s original gradualist model); macro-evolution resulting in cladogenesis over shorter periods of time probably involves specific selection pressures. The disruption to human life patterns caused by the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculturalism ought to be sufficient for the emergence of a new species, Homo agrariensis — not metaphorically, as we have so often come to speak of a “new breed” of man, but biologically — except that the developments of civilization continue to disrupt human life in new ways, so that no stabilizing selection occurs specifically driven by the agricultural mode of life.

Settled industrial-technological civilization has inherited much of the cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and even as our civilization today continues to ever so gradually replace the ideological infrastructure of agrarian-ecclesiastial civilization — like the planks replaced one-by-one in the ship of Theseus — much remains of the agricultural past (and even the agricultural macabre) in our institutions today. Industrialism is extremely recent in evolutionary terms.

While settled industrial-technological civilization has inherited much of the cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and one might assume that civilization simpliciter involves a radical departure from pre-civilized life that must entail compromises with the instinctual life (as was apparently Freud’s position in Civilization and its Discontents), this is not a necessary aspect of civilization. Other kinds of civilization have existed that did not entail the severe instinctual curbs of settled agriculturalism, and other forms of civilization may yet arise that are more in tune with human nature and the human condition.

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Monday


Evolutionary_Psychology

Science has a problematic relationship to mythology, so that to speak in terms of the mythological function of science is to court misunderstanding, but this idea is so important that I am going to take the risk of being profoundly misunderstood in order to try to explicate the mythological function of science, both in its descriptive and normative aspects. One of the problems that science has with mythology is that a great many if not most prominent institutional representatives of science explicitly reject mythology, or, if they do not explicitly reject mythology, they invoke a quasi-NOMA doctrine in order to demonstrate their respect for and tolerance of traditional mythologies as long as these mythologies do not interfere in the practice of science.

Science today, however, cannot be neatly contained within any category or limited to any one aspect of life. Science is the driving force behind our industrial-technological civilization, and as such it penetrates into every aspect of life whether or not we recognize this penetration, and whether or not science is even wanted in every aspect of life. Science has become as comprehensive as the global civilization with which it is integral, and so we find ourselves, both as individuals and as part of a society, facing a comprehensive institution that shapes almost every aspect of life. We have a relationship to this institution whether we like it or not, and in some cases this relationship approximates a mythological relationship, although (as I argued in The Next Axial Age) we have not yet seen the axialization of industrial-technological civilization.

On my other blog I have recently written a series of posts on religious experience, across the broad expanse of civilization from the transition from our hunter-gatherer origins to the forms that religious experience may take in the future. These posts are as follows:

Settled and Nomadic Religious Experiences

Religious Experience in Industrial-Technological Civilization

Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization

Addendum on Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization

Responding to the World we Find

These posts were narrowly focused on religious experience, and not on other aspects of religious ideas and practices. However, I took as my guide Joseph Campbell’s delineation of the functions of mythology.

Campbell makes a fourfold distinction in the functions of mythology, including the mystical function, the cosmological function, the social function, and the psychological function, as follows:

● The Mystical Function is concerned with reconciling consciousness with the pre-conditions of its existence.

● The Cosmological Function is a unified and comprehensive conception of the cosmos consistent with the mystical function of mythology (above) and the social function of mythology (below).

● The Social Function is a conception of the social order that establishes a model and a form for social institutions, as well as a conception the relation of the individual to the social order, and, through the social order, to the cosmos at large.

● The Psychological Function, which I would prefer to call this the “personal function,” is the function of a myth to guide an individual through the stages of life and to act as a support and as comfort in the individual’s hour of need.

This is a somewhat schematic approach to how an mythological world-view functions in a social context, and not the only possible way to analyze religion. Recently I was skimming some of the work of Ninian Smart, who distinguished seven “dimensions” of religion: 1. Doctrinal, 2. Mythological, 3. Ethical, 4. Ritual, 5. Experiential, 6. Institutional, and 7. Material. Smart further decomposed these seven dimensions into the para-historical (1-3), which must be studied by “dialogue and participation,” and the historical (4-7), which can be studied empirically, like any branch of science. It would be an interesting intellectual undertaking to do a detailed comparison among taxonomies of religious study. Campbell’s master category of mythology is, in Smart, reduced to one among seven dimensions of religion, so some care would be required to sort through respective definitions.

For the moment, however, acknowledging that there are other theoretical frameworks for studying religion, I am going to remain within Joseph Campbell’s structure of the functions of mythology in taking up the central role of science in our civilization. Campbell’s four functions of mythology provide an agenda to approach how science functions in the society of industrial-technological civilization, which can in turn be compared to past instances of mythologies that have served the central role in earlier civilizations equivalent to the role of science in contemporary civilization.

Science, as we all know, has been a source of the dissolution of the cosmological function of traditional mythology. Wherever traditional mythology supplied a myth of origins explaining the structure of the world, this myth has been rudely confronted with the scientific account of the structure of the world. Where the mythological account could gracefully be accepted as a metaphor, this was not a problem, but when great value has been attached to literal interpretations, then it is a problem. Eventually, and slowly, science has supplanted any and all mythological accounts of the nature of the world. Science, then, is uniquely suited to serving the cosmological function of mythology, and does so today even if it is not understood to be a mythological account of the origins and the structure of the world.

In regard to the social function of mythology, I find the position of contemporary science to be very hopeful at the same time that it is very distressing. On the hopeful side, we have sciences of society that are becoming more sophisticated all the time. From an adequate social science human beings are in the position for the first time in the whole of human history to say what kind of cities function well, and which kind of cities function poorly; what kinds of intervention work well, and which kinds fail; what kind of societies are likely to provide health, wealth, and happiness, and which kinds of societies consistently fail to do so. On the distressing side, every utopian program derived from the most advanced social thought of every era of human history has been a disastrous failure that not only fails to provide for health, wealth, and happiness, but which more often than not is transformed in practice into a dystopian nightmare. Thus the ability of a social science to design and maintain even a mediocre society is in question, and we cannot yet count science as ready to fulfill the social function of mythology, even if we are optimistic about the hopeful progress of social science.

The psychological or personal function of mythology is, in some senses, the whole of the problem in miniature. If science can provide an adequate account of the individual, many of the other functions of mythology will fall into place; if science cannot provide an adequate account of the individual, nothing else will work. The best science of the human individual is to be found today in evolutionary psychology. While evolutionary psychology remains controversial, the growing body of work on evolutionary psychology is giving us insights into human nature as derived from our biology and our evolutionary history. We should distinguish criticisms of evolutionary psychology between the political rejections of evolutionary psychology (which is hated by both left and right, in the same what the both the political left and the political right ultimately cannot countenance natural history) and the criticisms of evolutionary psychology that rest on a is/ought conflation. The politicized rejection of evolutionary psychology is uninteresting, so I will ignore it, and only discussed is/ought conflation in the criticism of evolutionary psychology

Evolutionary psychology is a descriptive science with no normative content, but, sadly and inevitably, no matter how carefully one points out that evolutionary psychology only studies human history, and how we got to be the way that we are, and has nothing whatsoever to say about what we ought to do, nor does it contain any prescriptions, many are unconvinced and are profoundly disturbed by the unflattering evolutionary origins of behaviors that we think of as being typically human. The confusion over the word “natural” in contemporary popular culture embodies a similar problem, except that “natural” is not a scientific term. People use “natural” in ordinary language to describe the world apart from the intervention of human civilization, but they also use the world to express certain values, especially connecting nature with conservation values and environmental concerns. It is extremely difficult to talk about nature without others jumping to the conclusion that one is also going to advocate for a range of issues related to environmentalism. While advocacy may grow out of the growth of scientific knowledge (as was explicitly the case with Lori Marino), and scientists often grow to love their object of study no less their their personal contributions in terms of a theory of their object of study, there is no necessary connection between scientific knowledge and advocacy. It has been considered highly counter-intuitive that, for example, Michel Foucault has been called an “anti-humanist human scientist,” as it is simply assumed that if you study humanity by way of the human sciences, you will also be an advocate of humanity. Similarly with evolutionary psychology, it is often assumed that one is being an advocate for behaviors conditioned by evolutionary, rather than merely explaining the evolutionary mechanism that brought them about.

If we can get past these simple-minded conflations, evolutionary psychology can teach us a great deal about ourselves and our relations with others while in no sense arguing that we are obligated to blindly follow those instincts engendered in us by our evolutionary development. It is a familiar theme that human instinctual life must be repressed in the context of civilized life; this was, of course, the theme of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. Another way to formulate this would be to observe that civilized life is incompatible with the instinctual life, so that evolutionary psychology would seem to provide no guide whatsoever to life in our industrial-technological civilization. But this is a deceptive claim to make. To understand the discontent of man in civilization, and especially the widespread anomie of alienated individuals, it is necessary to understand exactly the conflict between instinctual behavior and the behavior demanded by civilized society. Individuals who have studied evolutionary psychology have gained a unique measure of insight into these instinctual conflicts, and I think it is entirely reasonable to assert that such knowledge would likely be a help in guiding the individual through the stages of life experienced in civilized society — especially if evolutionary psychology were supplemented by an evolutionary account of the development of civilization — so that science could be said to be within reach of a robust ability to serve the psychological function of mythology.

This leaves us with the mystical or metaphysical function of mythology, and this will be the toughest task for science, because the science that has propelled industrial-technological civilization relentlessly forward has been a positivistically-conceived science that distances itself both from the mystical and the metaphysical, almost to the point of a cultivated ignorance of the tradition — what I have elsewhere called Fashionable Anti-Philosophy.

I see two possible sources for a mystical function that science could serve: 1. the eventual reconciliation of science with philosophy that allows science to draw from the resources of philosophy of produce a metaphysical conception consistent with modern science, or 2. a scientific theory of consciousness that is neither eliminativist or reductionist, but which gives a definitive account of consciousness that individuals without scientific training will feel is adequate to the explanation of their experience of the world. While many scientists are working on consciousness, and several scientifically-minded philosophers have claimed to “explain” consciousness, we cannot regard any of these efforts or explanations as yet being adequate to the task that would be required of a scientific approach to the mystical function of mythology.

A definitive scientific account of consciousness coupled with an account of evolutionary psychology, including evolutionary social psychology, would give a thorough descriptive account that could serve the mystical, social, and psychological functions as mythology as well as science now serves the cosmological function of mythology. The same is/ought distinction, however, the prevents us from being forced to regard a descriptive account of evolutionary psychology as a prescriptive account of how individuals and societies ought to conduct themselves, constitutes a limitation on the ability of science to function as a mythology, though even here science is not powerless. Sam Harris has recently written a book and given many lectures on the possibility of a scientific approach to morality, and while I disagree with his account, it demonstrates that scientific thought still has many resources that it can bring to the table. Here is where philosophy becomes indispensable. The kind of rapprochement between science and philosophy mentioned above as a possible source for a scientific metaphysics that could serve the mystical function of mythology is perhaps more crucial in overcoming the limitations of science to be prescriptive without violating the is/ought dichotomy.

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Monday


An Addendum on an Addendum

I have already written Taking Responsibility for Our Interpretations and Addendum on Taking Responsibility for Our Interpretations, and I still feel like I haven’t managed to say what I wanted to say. In other words, the definitive formulation has definitively eluded me… at least for the time being. This is frustrating. Obviously, this is something that I need to continue to think about until I can formulate my thoughts with Cartesian clarity and distinctness.

I suppose that I was trying to say something about the individual’s relationship to history — in the US, this is notoriously a tenuous matter — and now as I think about it the image that best fits the individual’s relationship to history is that of a swimmer in the ocean.

We appear in the midst of history, in medias res, as it were. We do not get to choose when we appear or where we appear. Our existence possesses that brute facticity that Sartre was concerned to elaborate in his famous novel Nausea. We have little more control over when and where we disappear. That is to say, we also leave history in medias res, so that we swim in history our entire lives — whether we know it or not, like the doctor in Moliere who was unaware he had been speaking prose his entire life.

Joseph Campbell employed the image of swimming to try to illustrate the function of mythology in human life. The psychotic, Campbell said, is thrashing about, and possibly also drowning, in a sea of mythological images and archetypes; what distinguishes the mystic is that the mystic is able to swim in this sea of mythic images — he masters the currents of the subconscious that buffet the psychotic and leave the latter at the mercy of forces he does not understand. I’ve always liked this image of Campbell’s of the mystic as swimming in waters in which the psychotic is struggling; I think it captures something important.

To return to my idiom of taking responsibility for our interpretations, one could say that the mystic (in Campbell’s sense) has taken responsibility for his interpretation of history. The mystic knowingly employs mythic images; he is the master of the story he weaves, the maker, rather than being mastered by his narrative. Note that the mystic’s taking of responsibility does not necessarily involve any denial or negation of the myth as myth, only its mastery. Plato’s conception of a noble lie as a foundation for civil society might be considered parallel to this, at least for the Guardians of the Republic, who know the lie is a lie, but tell it anyway, presumably for the good of their fellow man.

Mythology might be taken to be the most tendentious of interpretations of history — flagrantly if not unapologetically non-naturalistic — so that myth-making can be understood as the paradigmatic form of taking responsibility for history. But the myth-maker is no positivist out to deny the existence of Santa Claus. The mythic interpretation of history is essentialist and inherentist, and therefore regards the details of the ordinary business of life as of little account. Mythology is cosmological history, and the only thing that counts is if the big picture is paints coincides with the individual’s understanding of the greater world. The individual who is neither mystic nor psychotic also find themselves cast into this vast sea of archetypes and images; some flail around helplessly, some go under, some find a rock to stand on, and some learn to swim.

It is the same with history, and the individual’s experience of history is that of being cast into a tossing sea of meanings and values, attempting to make sense of these even as one attempts to keep one’s head above the waves. History is not abstract or distant; it is all around us, like the air we breathe — or like the last gasp of breath before we slip under the surface. One can understand, from this perspective, why the individual grasps at interpretations, sometimes with near desperation. We are all looking for a life preserver, and an interpretation that makes sense of history is that life preserver in the stormy seas of history.

The individual’s immersion in history has been well put in a passage from Marx that I have quoted repeatedly:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, first paragraph

What does Marx mean by make history? What is it to make history? The question is more interesting than it may initially seem to be, because “history” is ambiguous — it means both the actual events of the past and the later account of these events. I am going to call these two senses of history, respectively, history1 and history2.

Marx’s point is that the making of history is constrained. Given the two senses of history above, there are four permutations of constraint that hold between these two senses:

history1 constrains history1, i.e., past events constrain past events

history1 constrains history2, i.e., past events constrain the interpretation of the past

history2 constrains history2, the interpretation of the past constrains the interpretation of the past

history2 constrains history1, the interpretation of the past constrains past events

The simplest way to understand the relationship between these two meanings of history is assert that history2 is an interpretation of history1, but such simplicities cannot long endure in the complexity of human life. Some of these formulations seem too obvious to mention; some seem too counter-intuitive to possibly be true. There is a sense, however, in which each of these permutations can be interpreted sympathetically as being true (or, at least, partly true) and therefore a way in which all four of these conceptions of the relation of past events to their interpretation have been taken as the basis of history (and of the individual’s relationship to history).

How an individual swims in the ocean of history is constrained — events constrain events, interpretations constrain interpretations, events constrain interpretations, and interpretations constrain events. Each us may start out flailing around, but each of us eventually learns some stroke, usually from our parents, that allows us to keep our head above water.

Finding ourselves thrown into history (to invoke a Heideggerian term), we are thrown into the midst of stories not of our own making and not of our own telling. Indeed, one of the primary forms of acculturation is to be told stories as a child. This is the foundation and formation of our historical consciousness, as well as of our identity as a member of a community.

In especially rigid societies the transmission of stories is synonymous with the imposition of what has been called the “primary mask,” while beyond this cultural stasis typical of some hunter-gatherer peoples, a limited degree of social change initiated by each successive generation allows for the gradual evolution of the stories that tell the history of a people, which can then absorb and include later cultural innovations and accretions. As the shaman tells the story of the tribe to a new generation, he changes the wording ever so slightly in each re-telling, and over time this keeps the tribal myth centered on the contemporaneous experiences of the people for whom it is intended.

In a completely static society, in which stories are transmitted unchanged from one generation to the next, neither the society nor the individual takes responsibility for society as a whole or for individual roles within society. This is an ideal limit that has probably been approximated by some paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies, but as an ideal hypostasis it was probably rarely realized in unconditional form.

It has often been the function of art in society to introduce revolutionary change through the presentation of a new idea in a mythological garb that can be understood as continuous in a certain sense with the mythological character of the dominant social narrative up to the present. The artist takes personal responsibility for the public narrative by changing a traditional narrative or creating a new narrative. This effort to intervene in history comes with risks.

Personal intervention in history must often be masked in the interest of self-preservation, since the individual who challenges the “sacred canopy” that covers society may become a target for defenders of the status quo. Thus the artist develops systematic methods of ambiguity — something that we have seen even up through the twentieth century. During the heavy-handed repression of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, artists throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe sought to conceal their agendas through systematically ambiguous interpretations, as in Hays Code Hollywood filmmakers sought creative ways to express their ideas without explicitly violating the standards laid down by the code. It could be argued that both of these aesthetic movements contributed to change in their respective societies.

In so far as change in predominantly static societies comes with existential risk, even the most purposefully deceptive interpretation of history has a role to play. The fundamental distinction to be made, then, is that between those who know that they are making an interpretation and those who do not know, those who accept an interpretation without thinking. Implicit in my above remarks is that most people are not suited to innovate; the most that they can do is to keep their head above water. This is a profoundly elitist sentiment, entirely in line with Plato’s conception of a noble lie. I am uncomfortable with this, because, frankly, I know that in any Platonic division of society my position would be at least as marginal, if not more marginal, as it is at present. As I don’t like being marginal, and would not want to be even more marginal than I am, I would resist any Platonic transformation of society (not that this is going to happen, anyway).

No less than a politician telling his constituents a noble lie, the mystic teaching the psychotic to swim in the seas of mythology is not about to reveal everything at first, or even ultimately. relationships of these kinds emerge seamlessly from human nature — one could say that they are naturally occurring social contracts — and one sees pretty clearly how they would function in small societies based on an agricultural model, but when transplanted into the masses of industrial-technological civilization, the distance between the parties to the social contact opens so wide that it needs to be formalized in a formal social contract like a political constitution. What is to be done? I have no answer at present, but I can promise that I will continue to ponder this difficult impasse.

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Thursday


The Myth of the Happy Family in

Mid-Twentieth Century Industrialized Society


In an early post to this forum, Social Consensus in Industrialized Society, I suggested that, since the advent of the industrial revolution, industrialized societies have passed through two stages of social consensus in the social organization of industrialized society. At present I consider industrialized societies to be in search of a third social consensus for the structure of an industrialized society. I have returned to this theme on several occasions, and wrote about the mythological dimension of industrialized societies in The Role of Ritual in Industrialized Society and Ritual and Myth in Modernity.

The first stage of social consensus under industrialization was the “factory system” that closely resembled the social organization of agricultural society, of which early industrial society was the immediate successor. The second social consensus of industrialization was the sanitized image of mid-twentieth century normalcy of neighborhoods, schools, churches, and hospitals. An important difference between these two previous forms of social organization is that the first was a mere accident of history — a displacement of the organization of agricultural production into industrial production — while the second was based on a modern myth.

A social consensus with a mythology attached to it is something far more powerful that a social consensus that comes about as a result of the accidents of history — i.e., a form of social organization that a society blunders into as a result of doing the best it can at each stage of development. When a myth is attached to a social consensus, that social consensus becomes a model to which people aspire to live up to.

What was the myth of the second industrialized social consensus? For convenience I will call it The Myth of the Happy Family, although the mythology is much larger than happiness or families narrowly construed. Tolstoy famously said that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This imperative of likeness makes the myth of the happy family a mythology of conformism and rigid social roles. It is to be noted that this was not a religious mythology, but a domestic mythology.

I have many times quoted Joseph Campbell to the effect that a ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth. The rituals by which one participated in the myth of the happy family were the rituals of domesticity: father coming home from work, hanging his hat up, saying, “Honey, I’m home!” as he closes the door, with his wife standing there with a martini already prepared and handing it to him while two beaming children stand in the background, ready to hug their father after he has kissed his wife. The ritualized family evening meal follows next.

The larger social myth associated with the myth of the happy family is the myth of the happy family extrapolated, extended, and expanded to include social wholes: church, school, neighborhood, community, and nation were all to be “one big, happy family,” and the pater familias who presided over this beneficent and hierarchical structure was “the father of his people.”

For every myth, there is a true believer out there (or many of them) for whom a given myth is an adequate expression of the world. By the same token, for every myth there is a skeptic (or many of them) who feel shortchanged by a myth that did not and could not be, for them, an adequate expression of life. So it was with the myth of the happy family. Some gloried in it; others despised it. Because a myth reaches only a part of a mass population on a visceral level, for the myth to have social efficacy it must be policed by social and state institutions. The myth of the happy family could only be perpetuated by the brutal suppression of any non-conforming element that defied the myth or failed to fulfill the rituals by which the myth was reenacted in the daily lives of the members of industrialized society. For example, the myth of the happy family essentially excluded social mobility.

While the living and working conditions of the working class during the early industrial revolution under the “factory system” were appalling, and are remembered as such — there is no nostalgia for these conditions — the myth of the happy family continues to have its adherents. It retains a seductive quality precisely because of the power of its strong social roles and unambiguous expectations for individuals. People who feel discomfited by the complexities and shifting expectations of the contemporary world look back to the myth of the happy family as a model still to be instantiated by industrialized society.

This mythology still today influences how we live our lives — not only because of nostalgia, but for concrete, economic reasons. In fact, the myth of the happy family influences our architecture, as I tried to show in Industrialized Space and Time. Recent attempts at architectural traditionalism incorporating front porches and driveways and garages confined to alleyways are intended to reproduce a neighborly community where families sit on their front porch sipping lemonade and chatting with their neighbors who stroll by, all without being interrupted by vehicular traffic. It sounds silly to talk about it in this explicit way, but given the price of housing in industrialized countries there is serious money at stake in this quaint vision.

It is possible that contemporary developments are pushing us toward of social consensus that might be called The Myth of the Happy Individual. I don’t think that this myth has fully taken form yet, and I am not predicting that it will fully take form, but there are signs of it throughout contemporary society. There is an implicit paradigm of the well-lived life today as consisting of a highly diverse collection of personal experiences, as exemplified in a “bucket list” of things that an individual would like to experience before “kicking the bucket.” This is the vulgar version, but you may also recognize the happy individual as the fully self-actualized individual perched on the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Both myths — the myth of the happy family and the myth of the happy individual — are equally pernicious. Both engender far more unhappiness than happiness precisely because they attempt to enforce happiness as a norm. If your family isn’t happy, then there is something wrong with it and you’d better get it fixed. If you’re not happy, there is obviously something wrong with you and you probably should be in therapy. Life is hard enough as it is; to add the extra burden of the expectation of happiness makes it unbearable more often than not.

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Tuesday


A revaluation of agricultural civilization

In several posts I have made a tripartite distinction in human history between hunter-gatherer nomadism, agriculturalism, and industrialism. There is a sense, then, from the perspective of la longue duree, that the macro-historical division of agriculturalism constitutes the “middle ages” of human social development. Prior to agriculturalism, nothing like this settled way of life even existed; now, later, from the perspective of industrialized civilization, agriculture is an enormous industry that can feed seven billion people, but it is a demographically marginal activity that occupies only a small fragment of our species. During those “middle ages” of agriculturalism (comprising maybe fifteen thousand years of human society) the vast bulk of our species was engaged in agricultural production. The very small class of elites oversaw agricultural production and its distribution, and the small class of the career military class or the career priestly class facilitated the work of elites in overseeing agricultural production. This civilizational focus is perhaps unparalleled by any other macro-historical epoch of human social development (and I have elsewhere implicitly referred to this focus in Pure Agriculturalism).

The advent of agricultural civilization was simultaneously the advent of settled civilization, and the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism left the institution of settled civilization in place. Other continuities are also still in place, and many of these continuities from agriculturalism to industrialism are simply the result of the youth of industrial civilization. When industrial civilization is ten thousand years old — should it survive so long, which is not at all certain — I suspect that it will preserve far fewer traces of its agricultural past. For the present, however, we live in a milieu of agricultural institutions held over from the long macro-historical division of agriculturalism and emergent institutions of a still-inchoate industrialism.

The institutions of agricultural civilization are uniquely macabre, and it is worthwhile to inquiry as to how an entire class of civilizations (all the civilizations that belong within the macro-historical division of settled agriculturalism) could come to embody a particular (and, indeed, a peculiar) moral-aesthetic tenor. What do I mean by “macabre”? The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “macabre” as follows:

1: having death as a subject: comprising or including a personalized representation of death

2: dwelling on the gruesome

3: tending to produce horror in a beholder

All of the above characterize settled agricultural civilization, which has death as its subject, dwells upon the gruesome, and as a consequence tends to produce horror in the beholder.

The thousand years of medieval European society, which approximated pure agriculturalism perhaps more closely than many other agricultural civilizations (and which we might call a little bit of civilization in its pure form), stands as a monument to the macabre, especially after the experience of the Black Death (bubonic plague), which gave the culture of Europe a decidedly death-obsessed aspect still to be seen in graphically explicit painting and sculpture. But medieval Europe is not unique in this respect; all settled agricultural civilization, to a greater or a lesser extent, has a macabre element at its core. The Agricultural Apocalypse that I wrote about in my previous post constitutes a concrete expression of the horrors that agricultural civilization has inflicted upon itself. What makes agricultural civilization so horrific? What is the source of the macabre Weltanschauung of agriculturalism?

Both the lives of nomadic hunter-gatherers and the lives of settled agriculturalists are bound up with a daily experience of death: human beings must kill in order to live, and other living beings must die so that human beings can live. Occasionally a human being dies so that another species may live, and while this still happens in our own time when someone is eaten by a bear or a mountain lion, it happens much less often that the alternative, which explains why there are seven billion human beings on the planet while no other vertebrate predator comes close to these numbers. The only vertebrate species that flourish are those that we allow to flourish (there are, for example, about sixteen billion chickens in the world), with the exception of a few successful parasitic species such as rats and seagulls. (Even then, there are about five billion rats on the planet, and each rat weighs only a faction of the mass of a human being, so that total human biomass is disproportionately great.)

Although nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agriculturalists both confront pervasive experiences of death, the experience of death is different in each case, and this difference in the experience and indeed in the practice of death informs everything about human life that is bound up in this relationship to death. John Stuart Mill wrote in his The Utility of Religion:

“Human existence is girt round with mystery: the narrow region of our experience is a small island in the midst of a boundless sea, which at once awes our feelings and stimulates our imagination by its vastness and its obscurity. To add to the mystery, the domain of our earthly existence is not only an island in infinite space, but also in infinite time. The past and the future are alike shrouded from us: we neither know the origin of anything which is, nor, its final destination. If we feel deeply interested in knowing that there are myriads of worlds at an immeasurable, and to our faculties inconceivable, distance from us in space; if we are eager to discover what little we can about these worlds, and when we cannot know what they are, can never satiate ourselves with speculating on what they may be; is it not a matter of far deeper interest to us to learn, or even to conjecture, from whence came this nearer world which we inhabit; what cause or agency made it what it is, and on what powers depend its future fate?”

While Mill wrote that human existence is girt round with mystery, he might well have said that human existence is girt round with death, and in many religious traditions death and mystery or synonymous. The response to the death that surrounds human existence, and the kind of death that surrounds human existence, shapes the mythological traditions of the people so girt round.

Joseph Campbell explicitly recognized the striking difference in mythologies between nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agricultural peoples. This is a theme to which Campbell returns time and again in his books and lectures. The mythologies of hunting peoples, Campbell maintained, revolved around placating the spirits of killed prey, while the mythologies of agricultural peoples resolved around sacrifice, according to the formula that, since life grows out of death, in order to create more life, one must create more death. Hence sacrifice. Campbell clearly explains a link between the mythologies peculiar to macro-historically distinct peoples, but why should peoples respond so strongly (and so differently) to distinct experiences of death? And, perhaps as importantly, why should peoples respond mythologically to death? To answer this question demands a more fundamental perspective upon human life in its embeddedness in socio-cultural milieux, and we can find such a perspective in a psychoanalytic interpretation of history derived from Freud.

It is abundantly obvious, in observing the struggle for life, that organisms are possessed of a powerful instinct to preserve the life of the individual at all costs and to reproduce that life (sometimes called eros or libido), but Freud theorized that, in addition to the survival instinct that there is also a “death drive” (sometimes called thanatos). Here is Freud’s account of the death drive:

“At one time or another, by some operation of force which still completely baffles conjecture, the properties of life were awakened in lifeless matter. Perhaps the process was a prototype resembling that other one which later in a certain stratum of living matter gave rise to consciousness. The tension then aroused in the previously inanimate matter strove to attain an equilibrium; the first instinct was present, that to return to lifelessness. The living substance at that time had death within easy reach; there was probably only a short course of life to run, the direction of which was determined by the chemical structure of the young organism. So through a long period of time the living substance may have been constantly created anew, and easily extinguished, until decisive external influences altered in such a way as to compel the still surviving substance to ever greater deviations from the original path of life, and to ever more complicated and circuitous routes to the attainment of the goal of death. These circuitous ways to death, faithfully retained by the conservative instincts, would be neither more nor less than the phenomena of life as we now know it. If the exclusively conservative nature of the instincts is accepted as true, it is impossible to arrive at any other suppositions with regard to the origin and goal of life.”

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, authorized translation from the second German edition by C. J. M. Hubback, London and Vienna: The International Psycho-Analytical Press, 1922, pp. 47-48

The death drive, or thanatos, does not appear to be as urgent as the drive to live and to reproduce, but according to Freud it is equally implicated in society and culture. Moreover, given the emergence of war from the same settled agricultural societies that practiced a mythology of sacrifice (according to Campbell), there has been a further “production” of death by the social organization made possible by settled societies. It is to be expected that the production of death by sacrifice in order to ensure a good harvest would become entangled with the production of death in order to ensure the continuity of the community, and indeed in societies in which war became highly ritualized (e.g., Aztec civilization and Japanese civilization) there is a strong element of sacrifice in combat.

Freud’s explanation of the death drive may strike the reader as a bit odd and perhaps unlikely, but the mechanism that Freud is proposing is not all that different from Sartre’s contention that being-for-itself seeks to become being-in-itself (to put it simply, everyone wants to be God): life — finite life, human life — is problematic, unstable, uncertain, subject to calamity, and pregnant with every kind of danger. Why would such a contingent, finite being not desire to possess the quiescence and security of being-in-itself, to be free of all contingencies, which Shakespeare called all the ills that flesh is heir to? The mythologies that Campbell describes as being intrinsic to nomadic and settled peoples are mechanisms that attempt to restore the equilibrium to the world that has been disturbed by human activity.

Agricultural civilization is the institutionalization of the death drive. The mythology of sacrifice institutionalizes death as the norm and even the ideal of agricultural civilizations. As such, settled agricultural civilization is (has been) a pathological permutation of human society that has resulted in the social equivalent of neurotic misery. That is to say, agricultural civilization is a civilization of neurotic misery, but all civilization need not be neurotically miserable. The Industrial Revolution has accomplished part of the world of overcoming the institutions of settled agriculturalism, but we still retain much of its legacy. To make the complete transition from the neurotic misery of settled agricultural civilization to ordinary civilizational unhappiness will require an additional effort above and beyond industrialization.

Despite the explicit recognition of a Paleolithic Golden Age prior to settled agriculturalism, there is a strong bias in contemporary civilization against nomadism and in favor of settled civilization. Both Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (both of which I have cited with approval in many posts) make broad evaluative judgments to the detriment of nomadic societies — an entirely superfluous judgment, as though the representatives of settled civilization felt that they needed to defend an existential orientation of their civilization by condemning the way of life of uncivilized peoples, who are called savages and barbarians. The contempt that has been shown for the world’s surviving nomadic peoples — the Sami, the Gypsies, and others — as well as programs of forced sedentarization — e.g., among the Kyrgyz — show the high level of emotional feeling that still attaches to the difference between fundamentally distinct forms of life, even when one pattern of life has become disproporationately successful and no longer needs to defend itself against the depredations of the other.

Given this low esteem in which existential alternatives are held, it is important to see settled agricultural civilization, as well as its direct descendent, settled industrial civilization, in their true colors and true dimensions, and to explicitly recognize the pathological and explicitly macabre elements of the civilization that we have called our own in order to see it for what it is and therefore to see its overcoming as an historical achievement for the good the species.

We are not yet free of the institutions of settled agricultural civilization, which means that we are not yet free of a Weltanschauung constructed around macabre rituals focused on death. And despite the far-reaching changes to life that have come with the Industrial Revolution, there is no certainly that the developments that separate us from the settled agricultural macabre will continue. I wrote above that, given the consolidation of industrial civilization, we will probably have institutions far less agricultural in character, but it remains possible that the industrialism may falter, may collapse, or may even, after consolidating itself as a macro-historical division, give way to a future macro-historical division in which the old ways of agriculturalism will be reasserted.

I count among the alternatives of future macro-historical developments the possibility of pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism. In any civilization largely constituted by either the historical processes of pastoralization of neo-agriculturalism, agriculture would once again play a central and perhaps a dominant role in the life of the people. In a future macro-historical division in which agriculture was once again the dominant feature of human experience, I would expect that the macabre character of agricultural civilization would once against reassert itself in a new mythology eventually consolidated in the axialization of a future historical paradigm centered on agriculture.

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From Rituals to Stories

19 November 2010

Friday


A few weeks ago in Take Comfort in Rituals I offered a commentary on the then-current Starbucks slogan that had been emblazoned across their many locations. This “ritual” campaign did not last long, as I noticed that the slogans disappeared not long after I wrote about them. Now a new series of slogans have appeared at Starbucks, and it looks like the marketing team has made the transition from mythology to narrative, as they have gone from promoting rituals to promoting stories.

In so far as a myth (embodied in a ritual) is a special case, a particular example, of a narrative, the passage from mythology to narrative represents a passage to a greater level of generality, and therefore possibly also a connection to the perennial, universal truths of the human condition. And what could a marketer desire more than to establish some connection between a brand and the universal truths of the human condition?

In The Totemic Paradigm I discussed the significant and growing role of narrative theory in many aspects of contemporary thought, from analytical philosophy of mind to psychotherapy. It would not surprise me in the least if someone on the Starbucks marketing team has tapped into this vein of thought, and in so far as popular culture learns from serious scholarship, we are the better for it. George Lucas struggled with his screenplay for the original Star Wars film until he happened upon Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces, which provided a template for the schematic science fiction hero story that he then went on to write.

While it may seem cynical or crass for the Starbucks marketing team to expropriate narrative theory for selling coffee — or, rather, selling the experience of drinking coffee — if our experience of coffee can be reconfigured and recast as more of a cultural experience and less of a consumer experience, we are probably the better off for it.

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Take Comfort in Rituals

26 September 2010

Sunday


Like a great many other people, I stopped at a Starbucks close to my office for my near-daily hot chocolate and saw their new marketing slogan emblazoned on the door: “Take comfort in rituals.” When I got back to my office I Googled the slogan and found that a great many bloggers have already entered the fray on the slogan. It would be easy to dismiss this in an entirely cynical way, but I think it bears serious consideration. It may be a mere marketing slogan, but it also points to deeper things.

Many times in this forum (for example, in Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark: Bifurcating Naturalisms) I have quoted a line from Joseph Campbell that directly addresses the significance of ritual:

“A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth. You are in one way or another putting your consciousness, even the action of your body, into play in relation to a mythological theme, and, as I hope I’ve made clear, mythological themes are projections of the order of the psyche… by participating in a ritual occasion you are in a magical field, a field that is putting you in touch with your own great depth.”

The Myths and Masks of God, disk 5, track 9

So if a ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth, as Joseph Campbell holds, and visiting your local Starbucks is a ritual, as the Starbucks marketing team holds, in what myth are we participating by visiting a Starbucks? This is a good question, and in a sense it goes to the heart of many posts I’ve written about the role of mythology in industrialized society. You see, today we mostly lack explicit myths, though we still engage in rituals. These are rituals in search of a myth.

Another point to which Joseph Campbell returned repeatedly, citing a passage from Jung’s autobiography, was how Jung came to a point in his life when we asked himself, “By what myth am I living?” and he realized that he didn’t know. Once he had asked the question and had realized that he didn’t know by what myth he was living, he knew that he had to discover the myth by which he was living. The discovery of the myth by which he was living became a quest.

Joseph John Campbell (26 March 1904 – 30 October 1987) said that “A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth.” So does that mean that we are “living mythologically” by going to Starbucks?

While many of us might not like the idea of a daily stop at Starbucks being a ritual, it certainly does have ritualistic aspects. And the marketing team at Starbucks is right: people do in fact take comfort in their rituals. So in the midst of a hectic day at work, a typical customer might stop at a familiar Starbucks and order a familiar drink and consume that drink in the midst of familiar surroundings. I can easily imagine that this ritual of coffee drinking is felt to be something of a respite in a day filled with schedules and meetings and demands.

We find rituals comforting. Why? At least one reason is their familiarity. Most of the surprises that the world has in store for us are unpleasant surprises. Watch the local news in your city and you will encounter a list of crimes, fires, and broken water mains. These are unpleasant surprises. Pleasant surprises are rare. To engage in a ritual is to settle in to a familiar algorithm of life in which each step follows the preceding step with gratifying predictability. While this may unfortunately eliminate a few pleasant surprises, it also eliminates (or minimizes) a far greater number of unpleasant surprises.

Perhaps one of the sources of our comfort with familiarity is the conditioning of our lives by settled civilization. I have observed that settled civilization begets settled forms of thought, and there is no more settled form of thought than that prescribed by a ritual. Not only can our actions follow a familiar course of predictable steps, but our thoughts too can be ritualized, falling into a comfortable rhythm of a familiar sequence of ideas in which the equilibrium of one’s mind is not disturbed. Ritualistic thought is perhaps a kind of meditation.

Rituals, then, may comfort us because they are familiar and they help to keep us calm and peaceful in the midst of a chaotic and unpredictable world. This is perhaps a place to start, but it is only a start. We have not even attempted to answer the question above in regard to, “in what myth are we participating by visiting a Starbucks?” I do not yet have even a suggestion in answer to this question, though I suspect that interesting ideas would emerge from pursuing this question more systematically. In fact, I will need to think more about this.

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I’ve considered a follow-up Starbuck’s slogan in From Rituals to Stories.

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Humanity as One

5 September 2010

Sunday


Global human migration patterns

Joseph Campbell opens up the Foreword to his The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology with this reflection:

“Looking back today over the twelve delightful years that I spent on this richly rewarding enterprise, I find that its main result for me has been its confirmation of a thought I have long and faithfully entertained: of the unity of the race of man, not only in its biology but also in its spiritual history, which has everywhere unfolded in the manner of a single symphony, with its themes announced, developed, amplified and turned about, distorted, reasserted, and, today, in a grand fortissimo of all sections sounding together, irresistibly advancing to some kind of mighty climax, out of which the next great movement will emerge.”

Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Penguin Books, 1981, p. v

We now know scientifically the biological unity of humanity, and have known this for more than a hundred years. More recently, DNA science has cast a whole new light on the human diaspora since it began to spread out of Africa, and whereas we once had many theories of how humanity spread itself across the globe, and with little hope of deciding between these theories, DNA evidence now gives us a vast quantity of new information that has decisively settled most open questions of human migration of global colonization, and which has furnished us, from the material of our own bodies, with a richly documented narrative of how we settled the globe.

And settle the globe we did. Human beings moved through every ecosystem, every biome, and in the process of migration some stayed and settled in every niche in which a living could be had. All of this happened long before recorded history, was lost to us for the better part of our history, and is only now being rediscovered through the work of science.

A map from Wikipedia detailing terrestrial biomes, all colonized in the course of human migration.

Because of the circumstances of human migration, we lost touch with our own history, and the parts of humanity in far flung regions of the globe did not know of each other. George Friedman in his The Next 100 Years commented on this:

“Until the fifteenth century, human lived in self-enclosed, sequestered worlds. Humanity did not know itself as consisting of a single fabric. The Chinese didn’t know of the Aztecs, and the Mayas didn’t know of the Zulus. The Europeans may have heard of the Japanese, but they didn’t really know them — and they certainly didn’t interact with them. The Tower of Babel had done more than make it impossible for people to speak to each other. It made civilizations oblivious to each other.”

George Friedman, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, first Anchor Books edition, p. 19

The unity of the fragmented whole of humanity was occluded by the migration that resulted in the globalization of our species. Today, in an age of rapid worldwide travel and even more rapid telecommunications, we can stay in touch with our point of origin and return to it whenever we like. When the human adventure began, it was a one-way trip. And, once arrived, settlements emerged in isolation and without any knowledge of the world left behind. When populations expanded until they once again touched other previously isolated groups, no memory of the connection remained and such reunions of the human family were rarely happy affairs.

reunions among the various branches of the human family tree were rarely happy affairs. (Claude-Mathieu Fessard, engraver, b.1740, after John Webber, 1752–1793, Mort tragique du Capitaine Cook, le 15 février, 1779, sur la côte d’Owhy-hee, l’une des Isles Sandwich, découverte par ce navigateur)

This points to an important (and hopefully obvious) lesson: humanity can understand itself as a whole, as it is in fact (and which we now know it to be), or some subdivision of humanity can misunderstand itself to be the whole of humanity, so that when it encounters other parts of the human family tree it is incapable of recognizing them for what they are.

The examples of the human diaspora given above focus on the spatial separation of peoples when communications and transportation technology were sufficient to globalize our species but not sufficient to preserve our unity as a species. This can thus be expressed explicitly: humanity can understand itself as a whole in space, as it is in fact, or it can misunderstand some spatially-defined subset of itself as the whole of humanity proper, even though this is not the case in fact. This misunderstanding — really, fallacy — we can call the fallacy of spatial parochialism, and it is well familiar to us in all the stories of outrageous provincialism.

This explicit spatial formulation suggests an equally explicit temporal formulation: humanity can understand itself as a whole through time, as it is in fact, or it can misunderstand some temporally-defined subset of itself as the whole of humanity proper, even though this is not the case in fact. This latter misunderstanding we can call the fallacy of temporal parochialism, which is less familiar than spatial parochialism, but which I have previously discussed in this forum (and is therefore not unknown to my readers).

In so far as the fallacy of spatial parochialism and the fallacy of temporal parochialism are fallacies — we might group them together as fallacies of fragmentation — rigorous reasoning will learn to identify them and to eradicate them. (We might treat them as special cases of the fallacy of composition, but this would require a more detailed treatment that I will not pursue today.) The effort to identify and eradicate these fallacies of human fragmentation could be called the anthropological formulation of the Copernican Principle, which might sound paradoxical (in so far as the Copernican Principle is often explicitly contrasted to the Anthropic Principle), but also might be exactly what we need in order to counter some of the sillier consequences drawn from strong formulations of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle.

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N.B. I have no quarrel with weak formulations of the anthropic principle, which I regard as tautologically true.

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The Next Axial Age

11 August 2010

Wednesday


It is rare for a philosopher to have much influence over the popular mind, although it does happen occasionally. I have previously mentioned how Kuhn’s conception of a paradigm shift has been widely adopted (Philosophy of Science in the FT). Another rare borrowing is the idea of an “Axial Age.” This goes back to Karl Jaspers book, The Origin and Goal of History, although the same idea and even the same term was introduced about the same time by Louis Mumford.

Jaspers is a genuine philosopher (I mentioned him a few days ago in The Atomic Age Turns 65) and thus commands our respect. (And, yes, if you’re wondering, there are fake philosophers who command the approbation of the public but who have few if any genuine ideas of their own.) Since the idea of an Axial Age comes out of Jaspers, and is not merely a manifestation of popular intellectuals, it is worth considering in some detail.

Karl Theodor Jaspers, 23 February 1883 – 26 February 1969

Jasper’s idea of an Axial Age is that of an axis of world history, and not only of western history. This he finds in a period that he characterizes as, “a spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 B.C.” And Jaspers goes on to say that, “It is there that we meet with the most deepcut dividing line in history. Man, we we know him today, came into being.” Jaspers cites the presence of Confucius, Lao-tse, the Buddha, the writing of the Upanishads, Zarathustra, the Hebrew Prophets, and the Greek philosophers as empirical evidence of such an Axial Age.

I have written many posts dealing with historical periodization, and my own attempt to frame a naturalistic historical periodization that I call integral history both builds upon and transcends the traditional periodizations of western history. In this, I also aspire to defining axes of world history, although I do not see a single axis as does Jaspers, but several (which, of course, is why I referred to them as “axes”). So as I see Jasper’s Axial Age it falls entirely within the agricultural period of human civilization. In this sense, like my post mentioning the English Civil War and its ideological ramifications (The Agricultural Paradigm), we see that an enormously important age of human history, with all its changes and transformations, nevertheless lies entirely within, and is therefore at least in part constituted by, the institutions of agricultural civilization.

Since I have called attention to this on several occasions — that is to say, I have called attention to periods of great intellectual ferment that do not seem to have been triggered by demographic or economic transformations that define how the bulk of human beings live in a given age (and which I therefore take as an adequate basis for a naturalistic conception of history) — I might as well give it a name, so I can refer to it again in the future. Therefore I will call such periods or transitions between periods intra-civilizational axes. I might also call them intra-integral axes, intra-integral shifts, or even intra-integral civilizational axes (or shifts), but I fear I may lose what few readers I have if I stretch it that far. So we will leave it at that for the time being.

I do not deny that there was an Axial Age, and that it was crucial to the intellectual and spiritual development of human beings, but it isn’t a naturalistic phenomenon, and therefore doesn’t constitute what I have been calling an integral shift. And I think that Jaspers (as well as many of his defenders) would agree with me that the Axial Age was a non-naturalistic historical phenomenon and that indeed its non-naturalism is the very point. So in this respect I can make common cause with those who conceive history very differently from the way in which I do.

Bear with me for a digression. I have a habit of what may be called “binge scholarship,” by which I mean that I tend to completely immerse myself in a particular intellectual milieu for a period of time until I become sated and “come up for air,” as it were. I mentioned just such a binge of listening to Joseph Campbell lectures (in Class Consciousness and Mythology), and this resulted in several posts. I have recently returned to Joseph Campbell and am listening again to what has become my favorite set of lectures, Man and Myth. Of the Campbell lectures I have heard, these are the most dense with ideas and therefore provide the greatest degree of intellectual stimulation.

I find myself listening to Joseph Campbell again.

As I have re-listened to Campbell’s Man and Myth lectures over the past few days I am reminded of the emphasis that Campbell placed on the fact that the western tradition placed an emphasis upon the historicity of mythological events, and subsequent developments in science have called this historicity into question, which has also called the mythology into question. Campbell has also on many occasions discussed the need for myths that speak to the contemporary mind. I don’t think that he put it this way, but what he is saying is that we need to respond to a myth viscerally or it isn’t really a myth; a myth has lost its power as a myth if it no longer affects us immediately.

Campbell is such a great speaker that when he is giving an exposition of an ancient myth it is easy to believe that he is himself a true believer, and the implicit message some people take away from his books and lectures is a reactionary one: that we need to go back to the great myths, which are all, I will point out, myths of the Axial Age. In this, he is like Nietzsche, who often made such a convincing case for his adversaries that many took Nietzsche to be advocating precisely the doctrines he was criticizing. Walter Kaufmann has pointed this out in several of his books.

Walter Kaufmann (01 July 1921 to 04 September 1980) gave a rather uncharitable assessment of Joseph Campbell.

If you listen to Campbell closely, however, and listen to a lot of what he had to say (not being content with a few quotes and fragments that happen to agree with what you want to hear) it is obvious that he is a true believer in no one mythology, but in the role of mythology in human life generally speaking. I think this is what tripped up Walter Kaufmann in his estimation of Campbell, as well as a great many more lesser minds.

Campbell’s repeated statements to the effect of the need for modern myths for a modern age belies any reactionary interpretation of his works, and I am myself personally very sympathetic to this claim that Campbell makes. There are many incipient myths of contemporary industrialized civilization, but they remain amorphic, not fully formed, and are not yet prepared to take the full weight of an existential crisis, to be that which sustains ordinary men and women in their hour of need, except for a very few (non-representative) individuals.

Thinking about this aspect of Campbell’s thought at the same time as I was thinking about Jaspers’ Axial Age, I began framing these two ideas within the context of my own recent work. As I noted above, I see the Axial Age as an intra-civilizational axis that is entirely contained within the agricultural paradigm. I think that the case could be made, even though the Axial Age appears relatively late in the agricultural paradigm, that agricultural civilization had to develop to a given degree of sophistication, stability, and institutional complexity before such an intellectual and spiritual turning point could develop in this context. And this is what I think happened.

The Axial Age represents the flourishing intellectual maturity of the institutions of agricultural civilization, that is to say, this is the first time in the history of agricultural civilization that its institutions passed a critical threshold beyond which such non-naturalistic developments in civilization became possible, and once they became possible they were rapidly realized in many diverse cultures and civilizations. In this sense, the religious traditions of the Axial Age are fully a product and a consequence of agricultural civilization, and are specific to it. This accounts for the progressive decline (except when fanned by reactionary fervor) of these traditions in industrialized civilization. We can argue as much as we like about the future of mythology and religion (or even the future of an illusion, as Freud would have it), but the fact of the matter, as Campbell has repeatedly pointed out, is that many if not most of the mythologies of the Axial Age no longer speak to people on a visceral level. Mass man continues to render his respect to these traditions, but they do not move him as they did in the past — specifically, in the pre-industrial past.

Everything takes time, and it will take time for an authentic and genuine mythology of the industrial age to emerge. I have several times argued that industrialized civilization has sought a modus vivendi in two forms of social consensus that have failed, and that the social discontent, anomie, and drift that we see today is the consequence of industrialized civilization groping toward a third social consensus that it has not yet found (Social Consensus in Industrialized Society). Even if industrialized civilization does settle upon a third social consensus, there is no guarantee that this will be a lasting social consensus, if indeed there can be any lasting social consensus in industrialized civilization. However, I predict that if and when such a modus vivendi emerges within industrialized civilization, and the institutions of industrialized civilization can then come to maturity within a stable social context, that it will be then, and only then, that the next axial age can occur. And the next axial age will be an intellectual flourishing of industrialized civilization that will create mature, authentic, and genuine spiritual traditions specific to industrialized civilization.

All of this, as I said, takes time. Of course, things today happen very quickly. T. Greer’s vision of a growth revolution makes this clear. In an age of exponential growth things happen very quickly indeed, and we have seen things happen very quickly in our own lifetimes. But some historical processes still take time. It required perhaps 8,000 or more years for the slow development of agricultural civilization to experience its intellectual efflorescence in the Axial Age identified by Jaspers. I do not think that it will take civilization of the industrial age even a thousand years to develop to a similar degree of institutional maturity, but I do think that it will take several hundred years, and that we are not quite there yet. The next axial age is coming, but we cannot deliver ourselves of the prophecy, and say as Christ said, “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.” (Mark 9:1 KJV) While this is the message of the singulartarians, my message is that many generations will pass before the next axial age comes with power.

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