Paradox, Equilibrium, and Other Goals of the Psyche (of the Responsible Citizen)
“The whole crux of economic life - and indeed of life in general - is that it constantly requires the living reconciliation of opposites which, in strict logic, are irreconcilable”1
Somewhere in my undergraduate Religion and Psychology course, it was mentioned that according to Jung, the most important, most fundamental, and most difficult task of the mind (psyche) is the ongoing act of balancing opposites: most important in that the consideration/ evaluation of opposing sides is how the synthesis of something new comes about, something adapted, evolved; most fundamental in that the complexities of the human mind are likely evolutionarily formed on just this axis, this balancing of opposites, or more precisely, this tension is what the human mind is; and most difficult in that it is easy to internalize (identity with) one side of any issue and run with it (to pick one team, one political party, one religion, etc), but it is difficult to remain in the liminal state of not acting upon one side or the other, while carefully considering both. After all, the most militaristically powerful (dangerous) state ever known on planet earth must be one of action. Humans do not want to understand as much as they want to run with the pack and do, or frankly, kick ass. Looking at the rest of the animal kingdom, is it easy to see why. If you kick ass, you live. If you don’t, you get eaten alive. So we must ask ourselves: how human do we want to be?
How do we reconcile our urge and evolutionary right to run with the pack and pillage “the other” with our evolutionary responsibility to be fair, empathetic, and reasonable? The former being largely “unconscious” and the latter being largely “conscious” or consciously aware, conscious of one’s effects on things. We will point toward some clarification on this question with the help of the following: Morris Berman’s paradox , John Ralston Saul’s equilibrium , E.O. Wilson’s compromise/cooperation , Konrad Lorenz’s call for human humility and humor and the repairing of our unhelpful spiritual pride, and Stanley Diamond’s connote/denote distinction.
Because all action in any organized society is political action, we will explore the question of what it means to be a responsible citizen, whether that be of a small band of ten people moving slowly across the Siberian Taiga, or of a techno-industrial megalopolis of millions. On one side is disengaged, unthinking, blind faith, and on the other is engaged, critical thinking. I suspect we didn’t develop self-aware rational thought for the purpose of destroying the planet.
A quick note on the word “psyche.” Here we intend it to mean the totality of the conscious mind, the unconscious, and however one interprets soul and spirit. This is to be differentiated from the word “mind,” which can often refer only to the conscious, self aware mind, the “I” of everyday life.
In Wandering God , Morris Berman begins with a comparison of a “revival meeting”-like rally with JFK in 1960 with a “low key, reflective talk” rally with Eugene McCarthy in 1968:
“As the years passed, I realized that these two vignettes epitomized the misunderstanding of strength that is so characteristic of American culture, and, I argue in this book, of civilization in general. Not that JFK had no strength, but that it was largely submerged in what might be called ‘heroic’ energy - which accounts, at least in part, for the American romance with the Kennedy dynasty and the glory of ‘Camelot.’ However, Eugene McCarthy was coming from a very different place, a non heroic one. Since he understood that heroics got us into Vietnam, he realized that heroics would probably not be able to get us out of there. He knew that true courage lay in questioning, in being tolerant of ambiguity, and was willing to live out of that space in a public way. But to an electorate long used to conflating strength and charisma, such a position could only appear weak and ineffectual. If you’re not a hero, in this way of thinking, you must be insecure,” (Berman, 2).
In this world, the hero-actors become the leaders - Reagan, W. Bush, Schwarzenegger, Trump, whereas the intellectuals, the critical thinkers - Chomsky, Zinn, Nader, etc., remain on the periphery of popular culture. And the accusation of “flip flopping,” will be aggressively pursued as a sign of weakness, and will likely kill your candidacy for public office (as in Kerry’s 2004 campaign). The fact that conservatism tends to exist in “Middle America,” where cultural homogeny is more the order, and that liberalism tends to exist around metropolitan and university areas, where cultural diversity is predominant, will be a topic under John Ralston Saul. But we can guess where the obsession-compulsion to band up and follow a heroic leader is found more forcefully.
In the ultimately damaging choice/obsession to pick a side, stop considering alternatives/opposing views, and run with the pack, Berman offers his sense of paradox as the antidote. This paradox-consciousness, according to Berman, has been inherited to us from our hunter-gatherer heritage, which represents 99% of human evolution. Biologically, we are still hunter-gatherers, but culturally, we are not. This has happened because biological evolution happens much slower than cultural evolution, as E.O. Wilson will show us later on. This kind of consciousness is characterized by a “mature ambiguity,” a “horizontal awareness,” and a “relaxed sense of our own outside edge.”
Mature ambiguity implies the ability to hold opposites, or a plurality of stimuli, in one’s awareness without choosing one singular view to focus on and to eventually call reality. Think of the small child with his toy. He knows, he is sure that the toy is “mine,” and that he therefore need not “share with others.” The abject rage, bare emotional force displayed when he is forced to share and the toy is temporarily taken away shows how powerful the perceived certainties of our selfish egos are. When the illusion of these certainties is broken, it feels worse than death. And we can see how certainty, greed, and envy all go together and feed off each other. But when the child grows more mature, he learns that sharing things is better for everyone, including himself, as he will want others to share with him in his time of need. He will see that sharing promotes the long term health of the community (the community that provides his own health and home), even it if may be at the short term expense of his ego. If he perhaps even becomes wise, he will feel that sharing results in the short and long term benefit of his own personal ego, because he will feel that his own personal ego is not really his, but a dynamic expression of the whole community from which he has grown, and the want to participate in this paradoxical cycle is yet another form of this mature ambiguity. But until he approaches this wisdom, it is a painful lesson that takes years to learn to live with. Some, we can likely agree, never properly learn the lesson, paying it lip service in public, but not heeding to it in private. In the competitive, free market world, these people become CEOs, managers, corporate lobbyists on capitol hill, presidents of the united states, etc. The child’s toys becomes the adult’s ideologies.
With Berman’s horizontal awareness, we contrast the image of the quiet hunter creeping across the open savannah with the image of the modern business person staring at a screen of flashing electricity in a small room. And it is important to remember that we are evolutionarily still that quiet hunter creeping across open space. This latter existence is characteristic of vertical awareness. Horizontal awareness is non-focused, ambiguous, diffuse, plural, peripheral, corporeal, imminent, in body. Vertical awareness is focused, certainty-obsessed, confined, singular, ecstatic, transcendent, out of body. Horizontal awareness is found in societies who have a more cyclical sense of time, a sense of time that follows cycles of Nature. Vertical awareness is found in societies where linear time is the norm. In modern Western culture, this sense of linear time comes prominently from the idea that we count the days, the years, until the second coming of Christ. It is common in primitive cultures to not count time at all, as if the world could be progressing from one thing to another. Nature based cycles are more in a state of eternal recurrence than they are “going anywhere” or toward something different than they already are. But this idea is not acceptable in our modern world of progress. The world must be turned into something, particularly useful to mankind. It is not good enough the way it is.
In vertical/hierarchical/linear awareness, transcendence is the goal - going beyond the current situation. God has made the world and has left it to us to make something of it. We must transcend this world in order to meet God in Heaven. We must transcend our normal consciousness in order to have a religious experience, an ecstatic experience (e kstasis is greek for “out of body,” outside oneself, and so in our context, it becomes a psychically pathological goal of modern existence). We must also transcend our current jobs in order to be successful. We must compete against our peers and rise up the ladder in order to prove that we are better than where we currently are, and where we emotionally, economically, socially come from. And for that matter, we must transcend our current car, television, and home for bigger and better ones. If we cannot do this in a timely manner, then we are failing in life. Contrastly, in horizontal/egalitarian/cyclical awareness, imminence is the goal - not going beyond, but being constantly present. The religious experience here is found in everyday life, in the camaraderie of the hunt, the gathering around the fire, the closeness/humanity of interpersonal relationships without technological filters. It is in the commonplaceness of the simple, living bush, not in the exotic ecstasy of the burning bush. In horizontal awareness, boundaries are diffuse, not hard-lined. And there is nothing to transcend, everything is here, though paradoxically illusive. In vertical awareness, the boundaries are strictly defined - us and them, I and not I, this and that, like militaristic rankings. Berman explains further:
“You will also get enchanted by ideologies of various sorts, tend to swallow things whole, and call your beliefs certainties. Existential and psychological certainty will be, on an unconscious level, your number one concern...but adulthood involves a healthy balance between suspicion and trust, and balance is not what agricultural civilization or [God] worship is about,” (Berman, 149).
And of course, this vertical awareness comes from the vertical/hierarchical structure of society, which the society’s religion mirrors. It is certainty-obsessed because those in power are the ones who know what is certain. And the more and more a culture removes itself from natural cycles, the more and more it must invent abstract certainties which become religious, political, economic truths/ideologies. It is a black or white, this or that absolutism, and can be traced to the origins of Christianity and Platonic Idealism. It is a place where “hierarchy requires divisions - of sacred/profane, managerial elite/laboring workers,” (Berman, 12).
Unfortunately, in this vertical structure of the modern world, “the intensity of heroic, erotic, warlike energy propels modern progress, but it is anxious, always about to topple over,” (Berman, 11). We’ve all felt this anxiety of progress originating from the modern hierarchical/linear world. In fact, too often, we may not feel this anxiety acutely enough, because living in it is the unconscious norm of rush-rush-this-is-isn’t-good-enough race toward an abstract, unreachable utopia. In contrast, horizontal time doesn’t “push,” because there is no linear time or social verticality to push through.
If we don’t want to live in this paradox-consciousness, Berman offers the alternative, which is what we have “progressed” to since we started leaving natural cycles, most importantly the nomadic/semi-nomadic following of the seasons and the herds, and domesticating/ manipulating/controlling plants and animals about 10,000 years ago; what is known as the Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution. Evolutionarily, it is a flash in the pan, and with this understanding, a highly experimental occurrence.
There are two characteristics of this way of life, which complement each other. One is Berman’s Sacred Authority Complex, which is a hierarchical (ie an expression of vertical awareness) organization of society (political, economic, religious, etc), and the other is “dullardism,” which is characterized by “compulsive busyness, workaholism,” unconscious-provoking addictions, and the unfulfilling cog-in-the-system existence familiar to Marxist thought. Berman pits this fairly new vertical organization of sedentary society against the ancient horizontal organization of nomadic society which constitutes 99% of human evolution.
The Sacred Authority Complex is best seen in religious, political, and economic/social structures. Power/decision making is pathologically concentrated “at the top.” This makes its center of gravity too high, and once again, we get a structure that is constantly about to topple over. I don’t think we need to discuss how power that is too concentrated at the top is too easily abused. Oneliner tag line lying politicians, socially isolated big business leaders, creepy Catholic priests, and screaming orange-faced televangelists do not exactly engender warm and fuzzy feelings within the general population, let alone do they give us basic images of health and sanity.
But a culture addicted to absolute truths and steeped in perceived constant crisis will necessarily believe in whatever ridiculous rhetoric its media/political heroes/leaders spew out. In doing so, one can rest easily in knowing that they are participating in whatever truth movement is currently in style, whether it be anti-terrorism, anti-communism, anti-welfare state, etc. No critical thinking is needed when you are following the heroic leader who holds the biggest gun and biggest bank roll, therefore emotional/psychological discomfort, and any need for tensioned critical thought is abated.
Because it takes so much emotional energy to hold a plurality of viewpoints in our minds, to carefully consider them, and not fanatically run with one single viewpoint, we resort to giving our power away (the power we should assume as responsible citizens) to the Sacred Authority Complex, and we numb that tension (the tension that has evolutionarily made the human mind) with the comfort of dullardism. But, “The mind is moved to unfold itself in the space between contradictions,” (Berman, 8). If we make the decision to stop living in this “space between contradictions,” then we make the decision to stop exercising the purpose of our minds and the birthright of our evolutionary lives themselves. We choose to stop being the things that make us human - reasonable, fair, empathetic. These are the things that spontaneously arise from being thrown into self-awareness. Mental atrophy results in mental devolution. Here is an answer to “how human do we want to be?” We must pursue this tension, consciously exercise it, rather than numb it with the drug of blind, uncritical faith.
Berman goes on to say that the root of the Sacred Authority Complex is addictive attachment, and we revisit the analogy of the child with his toy:
“The Freudian term is cathexis, and in our own culture the most familiar form of it in weaned infants is the teddy bear, generically speaking; what the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called the “transitional object.” The T.O. becomes a breast substitute, the intermediary between Self and World. It is for this reason that such objects are, for children, quasi magical, endowed with aura (just try to pry a T.O. loose from an infant, and you’ll see what I mean). Winnicott argued that we didn’t lose our tendencies for cathexis later on in life; we merely found more sophisticated substitutes - for example, religions and ideologies,” (Berman, 36).
When culture leaves its natural environment - the eternal recurrence cycles of Nature - the “gap” between Self and Other (world/environment) must be filled. In primitive, nature-based culture, the self-community-environment-world forms a dynamic, self-regulating whole. One doesn’t grow up wondering if he/she is going to be a banker or a lawyer or doctor or a truck driver or a budget analyst or content manager. And one doesn’t wonder if he/she should perhaps move from the jungles of the Amazon to the Deserts of the American Southwest, or to the frozen taiga of Siberia. In the modern industrialized world, where everything is dichotomized, separated into units of commodity, ideologies must be invented so that the ego is not felt to be completely alone. These ideologies glue us together - whether they are institutionalized and named Christianity, or Capitalism, or Democracy, or the National Rifle Association, or the Sierra Club, etc. They rather unsuccessfully satisfy our need for tribalism, our need to belong.
This need for ideological belonging comes about once society separates itself from nature based cycles. “Axial civilizations share a totalistic view of change; there is always the attempt to remake the world according to prevailing transcendent vision...The Axial Age marks the birth of ideology,” (Berman, 144). The Axial Age (c 5th century BCE) is known as the the birth of modern thought, particularly the philosophical foundations of the Greeks, Biblical thought, as well as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Ideologies then are the attempt to “remake the world.” Once humans “transcended” natural cycles, the “transcendent vision” was needed to explain what we were doing here. The alternative is the primitive, nature-based world, which is not one of transcendence, but of imminence. Once we became separate from this evolutionarily inherited imminence - beingness, as it were - we developed “what Albert Camus once referred to as ‘nostalgia for the absolute,’ the frenzied wish to be cured,” (Berman, 244) of some perceived sense of incompleteness, as proselytized by the elites (philosophical, political, or otherwise). This obsession with certainty, with absoluteness, presumably facilitates control, manipulation, domination, and it is based in the fanatic drive to reconnect from the separateness. Once a child becomes conscious of his separateness, he quickly begins testing his control over everything. We call this the “terrible twos.” The sudden feeling of complete independence is paradoxically both ecstatically freeing and maddeningly frightening. It is a defining characteristic of human self-awareness.2
In this sense, a level headed, sane, adult human can find the emotional balance necessary to grapple with these psychic tensions, but Berman explains how certain “aggressive subgroups” come to dominate in vertically organized societies. “The problem with vertical energy is that you can never get enough of it. There is no end to achievement and no end to war, as civilization has found out. All of this, it seems to me, should give us some idea of who the aggressive subgroup is [who came to dominate hierarchical societies]. Heroes are made, not born, andthey are certainly not timeless archetypes,” (Berman, 112). “No end to achievement and war” is the key foundation of capitalism, the economic expression of the individualistic, selfish, narcissistic (non-communal) anxiety of progress that is the mainstream current of the modern world. There should not be an end, because you should never feel satisfied, content, restful, peaceful. Those who harness and manipulate this anxiety the best, the most fanatically, become the leaders and the heroes. Berman calls them “steep personalities.” They make acute decisions, they don’t flip flop. In our context, they don’t think critically, they don’t exercise the mental tension that makes us uniquely human. They are perhaps less human, or devolving humans. And yet, their energy is addictive, and so they are followed by the masses. This effect is particularly symptomatic of the addictive attachment that occurs when culture separates from its original home of natural cycles.
Steep personalities become the leaders and the heroes, because they are fanatic, they are crazed, they satisfy our emotional need to “fill the gap” between self and other. They are the intermediaries. They will save us from our existential crises. They will lower our tax rate, stop exporting our jobs, and they will protect us from the Other, who is trying to kill us, because those others are (perceived as) the crazed, fanatic ones, while we are the normal ones, the chosen people in the Promised Land, exercising our Destiny to subdue all human and non human things on earth and have dominion over them.3
And so the fundamental paradox is that we must live both as reasonable humans and unreasonable animals. We must act while fully realizing that we cannot be certain about our deepest held beliefs, as the world is fluid and moving, which is something we understood when we too, as nomadic hunter-gatherers, were fluid and moving. “Given that the bulk of human experience on this earth is [was] ambulatory, it seems likely that beneath our desperate need for certainty lies something much deeper, and that is our need for indeterminism, for the world to be unpredictable, surprising, alive,” (Berman, 16).
To better learn how and why these steep personalities/aggressive subgroups accomplish their manipulative aims, we move to a more political realm.
In The Unconscious Civilization , John Ralston Saul posits six basic human qualities — ethics, common sense, intuition, imagination, memory, and reason. They are arranged alphabetically, but we can see that reason quality at the end there. Saul claims that we have become narcissistically, fanatically enamored with this quality of reason. The largest problem is that economic dominators/leaders, in the form of corporations, have hijacked this quality to the detriment of the citizenry.
“Listen to Emile Durkheim: The corporations are to become the ‘elementary division of the state, the fundamental political unit.’ They will ‘efface the distinction between public and private, dissect the democratic citizenry into discrete functional groupings which are no longer capable of joint political action.’ Through the corporations, ‘scientific rationality (will) achieve its rightful standing as the creator of collective reality,’” (Saul, 88).
In a free market, private ownership based economy (capitalism), the most self interested become the most successful; the most group interested become the least successful. Extreme self interest, even in pathological forms, are rewarded and celebrated. Extreme group interest, community interest, necessarily weakens in this system. What results are millions of people in the street attempting to combat the decisions of a handful of very rich old white men.
“If democracy fails, it is the citizen [the community-majority-plurality] who has failed, not the corporate elites,” (Saul, 80). In Capitalism, the density of money far outweighs the density of human flesh. In this scenario, an economic abstraction is more real, in a philosophic and lawful sense, than a physical human entity, in its rawest and primal emotion sense. In this world, it is perfectly acceptable to kill innocent civilians, if there’s a chance that you also killed some “terrorist” (see the William Ryan Owens story/raid in Yemen for your most recent example), and if there’s a chance that you have protected your most cherished ism , whichever ism is fashionable at the time that allows you to keep, accumulate, and protect your things .
The elites have always wanted to convince us that the abstract, the “idea,” is more real than the physical thing. From Plato to Aquinas to DesCartes to Luther and Calvin to Freud, supreme reality is (must be) in the non-physical world. Again, when culture separates from Nature, the mind is left isolated, and its contents must be elevated to the most real, in order to maintain the illusion of sanity. The “idea” is singular (individual, minority), whereas the “physical thing” is plural (community, majority). And of course, the singular-individual-minority elites will determine what’s real for the rest of us. It is about power and manipulation. And it is the myopic, narcissistic hubris of the human mind that has convinced itself throughout all threads of Western history that its products, its processes are what’s real. If you wear yellow tinted glasses, you will go to the grave knowing, and go to war defending, that the world is tinted yellow. But somewhere surrounding our fragile, frightened little egos (literally and figuratively “self conscious”), in the soul filled abyss, we secretly (unconsciously) understand that the human world, the one encountered by the everyday conscious human mind, is but a small fraction of the world. Wolves and dolphins and ants and ferns and algae might heartily agree.
The only way for the few elites to control the many commoners is to continue to convince us that the abstract idea (“democracy,” “capitalism,” “God,” etc) is the place of Heaven, and the ultimate goal to always be striving for (but by necessity and by design, never quite reached), and that the Hobbesian toil of physical existence, the naked foot on the Earth, is the place of Hell and is reprehensible to the fine sensibilities of the elevated human mind (narcissistic/hubristic “I” of ego/reason). But if we could only convince ourselves that the opposite is true - that base, common, physical existence is the place of heaven and doesn’t need to be striven for, because we are already there, in it, and that the complex systems, the isms , invented by the few elite are all illusory, foundationless, ephemeral, teetering from top heaviness, clouds of reason, then the few elite and all their power structures would suddenly poof away.
As Berman pointed out, modern human consciousness (with its false leader reason) and human social structures (made hierarchical to keep the false leader of reason in power) are top heavy. They are always about to topple over. And this is exactly how the few powered elite need it. A society in constant crisis is the only kind that can be so easily manipulated. Our i sms will protect us from toppling over (into reprehensible, base physical existence). Our leaders, the creators and controllers of our isms surely have our best interest in mind. Thus, our ultimate fears are protected by the highest and most refined thought-systems that our highest and most refined (economic, social, religious) rationocrats/abstractocrats can invent and codify into law and spiritual truth. In this way, our sacred isms will be protected, first by media hypnosis, and last by military force, orchestrated by the few elite, in air conditioned, well lit rooms, but implemented “on the ground,” in the discomforts of the elements and the hell of the firefight, by the many young and mostly uneducated.
Saul quotes Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. “‘If it is not reason that rules, then man falls short of his potential.’ The key word here is ‘rules.’ Man must be ruled. This is the Hobbesian, corporatist view. If not kept under control, man and woman will run amok,” (Saul, 99). This, of course, is also the view of Plato and Freud and every champion of bureaucratic progress and civilization in between. So we must believe that for 99% of human evolution, we were helplessly, hopelessly “running amok,” in some haphazard rage, and now suddenly, in the age of ecological crisis and imminent planet destruction, we have finally settled into the dignified repose of reason. Uh oh. 4,5
“There is nothing new about bureaucracies - as opposed to management. Since the Roman Empire they have tended to grow uncontrollably and to lose purpose. This is not evil. It’s just characteristic. What is new is the devotion of the whole elite to the bureaucratic ethic - that is, to management - as if it were a primary skill. This is the product of corporatism. It is what happens when you rank reason and method over content....The difficulty is that, from Plato’s Republic on, reason and utopia have been inextricably linked. This has been more than a marriage of convenience. It is reason that is used to explain why each successive utopia - I should say ideology - is inevitable. And it is reason, we are told, that will make it run,” (Saul, 100).
The delicate, Jenga-esque, about-to-topple-over structure of complex bureaucracies are the result of desperate efforts to talk our way out of common sense truths. Winding up reason-play, or logical circuitries, like tightening a spring to the point of breaking it, becomes the goal rather than letting the spring rest in its non-molested, useful state. It is like walking a labyrinth for the sake of walking it, instead of to get from point A to point B. Drunk on intricate logical pathways, we wander the labyrinth, all packed together and reifying our convictions to each other, while the common sense thing to do would be to step out of the labyrinth and simply walk around it to get to the other side. But in the drunken, unconscious state, we follow the loudest, richest, most forceful current, thereby giving up our unique human-ness, which ultimately results in the political F word.
“‘The new order of fascism,’ Max Horkheimer wrote, ‘is reason revealing itself as unreason.’ ...Reason knows no doubt. It is strong because it finds the answers,” (Saul, 101). That is, even when the answers are wrong, or destructive to the long term success of human welfare. In a world where certainty is a must, certainty will be found, by reason (or by faith, when reason fails), even when it defies common sense, personal ethics, intuition, and those other characteristics which Saul maintains as the basic human qualities. The lawyeresque sophistry that is the product of reason can mold the most ridiculous un-common sense statements and images into perceived common sense truth. The current administration in America is as good an example of this as any other time or organization in history.
We can see in this current American political administration that certainty is more important than truth. Certainty is (veiled/pseudo) strength. And we can see the environmental and social destruction that will continue to happen when truthless certainty is perceived as being stronger than critical thinking, the critical thinking that occurs when one holds the tension of opposites, the tension of immaturely wanting singularities when living in a complex world of pluralities. But as this paper argues, the human mind evolves through this tension. Therefore, if we decide to abandon it, to remain bathed in fanatic certainty, then the result will be an unconscious civilization. This does not sound like a worthy human endeavor.
Going to battle powered by, on the force of, strong convictions, no matter how objectively misguided they may be, as long as they are subjectively 100% certain, is better than (takes less psychological energy than) attempting to understand “the other side.” Nothing is so weak as “wavering,” “flip flopping.” As mentioned earlier, we may remember that this easily accessed, cheaply orchestrated, emotional tactic helped the rich, privileged, conscription avoiding, Jesus-is-the-philosopher-thinker-I-admire-most Bush Jr.6 defeat the silver and bronze star awarded, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, cerebral Kerry in the 2004 campaign. Empathy is weak, therefore understanding, knowledge, well rounded information is as well. In a world where energetic fanaticism stamps out truth, democracy is veiled hero worship.
The end result of this way of life is fascism, blindly following the economic hero into economic (and by necessity military) battle to ensure our creature comforts at the expense of every perceived Other imaginable, but most notably the national/ethnic Other, the species Other, and the environmental Other. This is unfortunately our current situation in America.
The more firmly we believe in our superiority over every Other thing in the universe, the more quickly every other thing will be destroyed. We will not realize until it is too late, as we finally look up from our narcissistic/hubristic reflection, that we have destroyed ourselves as well. We have shat where we eat. The final act of hubris is to consume oneself. The last sin, the only one left, is an orgy of gluttony. This final act is not as far off as we wish it would be. The table is set, and we are sitting comfortably at it, cordially chatting over current events, new movies, and local sports.
Balancing opposing ideas takes a certain strength, a guttural fortitude, that is uncommon in our everyday lives. It is easier to follow our lunatic into battle (economic, political, religious, or otherwise) than to be alone in a liminal state of uncertainty. But those liminal states, of course, are the only states where new wisdom is ever synthesized. The mocked, radical uncertainties of yesterday become the obvious, commonplace truths of tomorrow. (“We all laugh at the old trends, but follow religiously the new,” Thoreau). The knuckleheads will go to war and come back as dead heroes, mythologized, canonized, artificially legitimized into eternity in the entertainment-advertising-media complex. The nerds will fade into nothing/non-history while we continue to survive on their inventions.
Saul further fleshes out our current corporate-capitalist-industrial problem:
“I would suggest that we are in desperate need of a reformulation of the idea of growth. The early industrial model is not working. Applied to our society it is an exclusionary formula. And the false growth encouraged by the technocracy is dragging us even deeper into crisis. Yet the ideals of sustainable development remain far removed from the realities of applied power.
For example, growth, as we currently understand it, classifies education as a cost, thus a liability. A golf ball, on the other hand, is an asset and the sale of it is a measurable factor of growth. A face lift is an element of economic activity while a heart bypass is a liability which the economy must finance. Holidays are among the pearls of the service industry, while child care is a cost.
In other words, our concept of assets and liabilities, of goods versus expenses, has a negative effect on the realities of growth. We are unable to take into account the needs of a sophisticated society. Investment in training and in the care of citizens cannot be treated as an asset. Yet the illusion of growth though the sale of golf balls remains firmly in place.
...That which you are told today is the inevitable product of economic truth and globalization is more accurately the passive assertion of superstitious men waiting for Destiny to fell them. It is an attitude that most sensible people can easily reject. But rejection means assuming responsibility. And in our elites there is no desire to initiate changes which would insert the concept of responsibility into that of power. Only a persistent public commitment by the citizenry could bring such a thing about,” (Saul, 152).
Short term progress at the expense of long term progress is short term and long term decline is disguise. Here the ecological crisis is only a crisis for those who didn’t make a million dollars today and who will not make a million more tomorrow. It is like being drunk or high on drugs. While in the moment, you believe the feeling will last forever, but you secretly know somewhere inside you that you will come crashing down soon. But the high does not let that secret linger.
Destructive, pathological myopia is at the heart of modern progress. We cannot see, literally. If every air conditioned room, square shaped, dry walled office building, leather seated, GPS equipped automobile, and 40” flat screen, and 3 monitored computer were all to suddenly disappear, we would shockingly begin to see. Old leaders would be powerless without their devices of manipulation.
John Ralston Saul’s call is for equilibrium, equality of those six human qualities - ethics, common sense, intuition, imagination, memory, and reason. We can see that when corporatism rules the world, the first five of those qualities are discarded for the self interest of the elite few. Reason, in the guise of bombastic lawyeresque sophistry and political platitudes, has unfortunately become the tool with which obsessive fanatic certainty is tinkered.
To dive deeper into our evolutionary heritage, we now move from psychological and political equilibrium of the modern human to the development of cooperation in early humans. In On Human Nature , E.O. Wilson finds a continuous thread from Homo Habilis , circa two to three million years ago, to modern human culture. Homo Habilis , according to anthropologists, wandered from the canopy of the forest to hunt game on the open African savanna. This image already lends itself to an opening of consciousness, a literal seeing in a new way, broader, farther, more complex. Hunting large game in open space requires social cooperation and the tools to gain an advantage over the fanged, clawed, faster creatures of the plain. This social cooperation, sharing of game, and passing on knowledge of tool making, is the beginning of human culture.
In this pre-historic scene (“history” unfortunately means “written history,” another blunder/misnomer of modern hubris):
“A high level of cooperation exists within the band, sexual selection would be linked with hunting prowess, leadership, skill at tool making, and other visible attributes that contribute to the strength of the family and male band. At the same time, aggressiveness would have to be restrained and the phylogenetically ancient forms of overt primate dominance replaced by complex social skills. Young males would find it profitable to fit into the group by controlling their sexuality and aggression and awaiting their turn at leadership. The dominant male in these early hominid societies was consequently most likely to possess a mosaic of qualities that reflect the necessities of compromise...Because there would have been a continuously reciprocating relationship between the more sophisticated social traits and breeding success, social evolution could continue indefinitely without additional selective pressures from the environment,” (Wilson, 86).
That is, cultural evolution - the increasing development of social skills, tool making, the suppression of immediate primal urges, in short, the things that make us more human and less “animal-like” (ie how human do we want to be?) - superseded any immediate adaptations necessary for environmental change. Cultural adaptations took the place of responses to environmental adaptations. Humans began to separate from the need to respond to imminent environmental change. Culture became transcendent. As for today, one need only watch the latest blatherings/spewings from the White House on our nightly news to notice that the people who are in charge of our money, our laws, our social norms, are not engendering to our children the benefits and virtues of “cooperation, compromise, and complex social skills.”
Here is where we find a similarity in Wilson’s “cooperation” and “compromise” with the paradox and equilibrium of the other writers in this review. What makes us human, what makes us different from other primates and the rest of creation is precisely these behaviors of cooperation/compromise/equilibrium/paradox. What makes us like the rest of creation is conflict/aggression/selfish imbalance/myopic certainty. An alpha male lion will kill the small cubs of a competing male, in order to ensure his progeny has less competition in the future. It is not a far cry to understand why an “alpha” nation state might find it acceptable to murder the villagers of some other, less powerful nation, simply to ensure that the progeny of the alpha state have better access to the resources of the lesser state. Xenophobia is a more culturally refined version of tribalism, which is a more culturally refined version of the unconscious, animal will to survive - kill or be killed, take or be taken from. With this, we can begin to answer “how human to we want to be.” We can either encourage the human virtues of cooperation and compromise, or we can encourage the unconscious/animal-like virtues of aggression and selfish imbalance. It will not be easy. According to the voting public of the 2016 presidential election, America is about split down the middle on this very issue, which, at the risk being dramatic, is quite literally a life or death issue. Chomsky has recently said that the Republicans are the most dangerous organization in world history. Climate change and evolution deniers are going to be a bit of a problem for the health of the human species.
“An unthinking submission to the communal will remains among the most emotionally potent virtues among ‘good’ people in the mainstream of society,” (Wilson, 184). This unthinking submission, of course, becomes the unconscious civilization of J.R. Saul. Unfortunately, critical thinking has become a peripheral activity in “mainstream society.” Running with the pack, with the communal unthinking will, is the easier option. One mustn’t question the flow of inevitable progress, even when it results in your house, your home, your planet, crumbling down all around you.
Two terms are essential to further understand E. O. Wilson’s thoughts in relation to this discussion; one is autocatalysis , which is “any process that increases in speed according to the amount of the products is has created. The longer the process runs, the greater its speed,” (Wilson, 84). The other is hypertrophy:
“In my opinion, the key to the emergence of civilization is hypertrophy, the extreme growth of pre-existing structures. Like the teeth of the baby elephant that lengthen into tusks, and the cranial bones of the male elk that sprout into astonishing great antlers, the basic social responses of the hunter-gatherers have metamorphosed from relatively modest environmental adaptations into unexpectedly elaborate, even monstrous forms in more advanced societies [ie absurdly complex bureaucratic corporations and governments]. Yet the directions this change can take and its final products are constrained by the genetically influenced behavioral predispositions that constituted the earlier, simpler adaptations of preliterate human beings,” (Wilson, 89).
That is, because cultural evolution happens faster than biological evolution, we are kind of like chimps or gorillas dressed in business suits, emailing spreadsheets to each other, having meetings that are theoretically structured by our recently acquired high mental form of reason, but which are likely largely governed by our unconscious emotional desires, etc. More concisely, we are gorillas beating our chests, but pretending to be dignified, reasonable beings. It’s sort of like learning to fly a space shuttle before learning to walk. Our technological prowess is moving faster than our biological (unconscious) adaptations can navigate. Hence, in John Ralston Saul’s term, we need to bring reason down off it’s pedestal, and “equilibrate” it with our other fundamental human expressions, such as common sense, etc. The more we let reason run amok among human culture, the faster our ecological, social, economic crises will grow. Again, lawyeresque sophistry is a too common and very dangerous product of reason, where literally anything can be argued as being true, right, just, ethical, etc.7
Cultural evolution moves faster than biological evolution. Wilson explains the difference between Lamarkian (c 1809) and Darwinian (c 1859) evolution. “Lamarkian evolution would proceed by the inheritance of acquired characteristics, the transmission to offspring of traits acquired during the lifetime of the parent.” Wilson writes, “for example, when giraffes stretch their necks to feed on taller trees, their offspring acquire longer necks even without such an effort...Lamarkian evolution has been entirely discounted as the basis of biological evolution, but of course it is precisely what happens in the case of cultural evolution,” (Wilson, 79). This is, it is supposed, because of conscious awareness. When father teaches son how to swing a baseball bat, or the benefits of a vegan diet, or how to behave in certain social situations, the son is consciously attempting to learn something new. Cultural adaptations, then, can be acquired within a single generation. Darwinian evolution, on the other hand, takes much longer. Natural Selection occurs by the slightly longer necked giraffes out-competing and out-procreating the slightly shorter necked giraffes. Slightly shorter necked giraffes are then biologically phased out over countless generations.
What we’re getting at here is that if we want to become more human, we must exercise our responsibility to behave and to teach the merits of compromise/cooperation/equilibrium/paradox. If we want to remain less human, less conscious, more animal-like, in effect, “devolve” instead of evolve, then we can continue to behave and teach the merits of the opposite: conflict/aggression/selfish, non-communal imbalance/myopic certainty.8
We will now look into one of the world’s most renowned animal behaviorists too see how we might move in this direction. After all, we are animals, and we behave.
In On Aggression , Konrad Lorenz identifies three obstacles that keep humans from their proper humility, from full self-knowledge, and “all three are inseparably bound up and shot through with with a most dangerous human quality: pride.” The first is the emotional reluctance to accept our evolutionary origins. The chimpanzee looks like us, but he is too vulgar, too monstrous to actually be related to us. And even the science-minded who accept that he is related to us will “pass over” their uncomfortable “close relationship to the repulsive chimp...in a few logical steps or circumvent it by sophistic detours.” “The second obstacle to self-knowledge is our reluctance to accept the fact that our own behavior obeys the laws of natural causation...The reluctance of many people to recognize the causal determination of all natural phenomena, human behavior included, undoubtedly stems from the justifiable wish to possess a free will and to feel that our actions are determined not by fortuitous causes but by higher aims.” This is a basic point of the existentialists. We would rather divert responsibility to a transcendent God or gods (the monotheistic God being the most simple, most parental like, so most comfortable), than to keep the unbearable responsibility of human actions all to ourselves (natural causes). But of course, we will claim, if it’s our “good works” that we’re presently focused on, then yes, that’s our free will, the free will that God gave us and which “he” is continuously/imminently checking in on.
“A third great obstacle to human self-knowledge is - at least in our Western culture - a heritage of idealistic philosophy. It stems from the dichotomy of the world into external world of things, which to idealistic thought is devoid of values, and the inner world of human thought and reason to which alone values are attributed. This division appeals to man’s spiritual pride. It supports him in is reluctance to accept the determination of his own behavior by natural laws. How deeply it has penetrated into accepted ways of thinking can be seen from the alteration in meaning of the words “idealist” and “realist,” which originally signified philosophic attitudes but today imply moral value judgments. We must realize how common it has become in Western, particularly, German thought to consider that whatever can be explained by the laws of nature is automatically devoid of higher values. To anybody thinking in this way, explanation means devaluation,” (Lorenz, 222).
Items of faith then are more real than items of common sense, reason, and other mental functions. “God has a reason, but we can’t know it, but we can be sure that it is more important than everything/anything we can know.” The everyday world is devalued, less important than the unknown (atheists might say unreal) world of faith. Of course, the thought in many (all?) Christian denominations that this world is simply a preparation, a test, for the more real (Platonic/Idealistic) afterlife, makes sense in this view. The unfortunate impact that this has on the environment, planet earth, our only home, is of course catastrophic, and absurd.
And how upside down it is. If something cannot be explained, it is the most real; if something can be easily explained, it is less real. We can see this stems directly from Platonic Idealism, where the idea of the chair is more real than the physical tangible chair. Why? Because the physical tangible chair can never be perfect, but the idea of the chair always is. The effect that this abstract idealism has had on Western religions cannot be overstated, but it is too big of a subject for this paper. The point here is that once again, the single, abstract idea is real, and the plural, tactile, “physical thing” is less so.
I might then call for a suspension of faith, as it is another expression of our obsession with certainty. That doesn’t mean an abandonment of it. Having faith in God, or in your wife/husband, or that you’re going to catch fish today, or that your beat up old car is gonna make it another couple months, or that you studied enough for your final exam, or that the rich and famous television personality that you voted to run “the free world” is gonna make things “great again” are all perhaps useful things to have faith in, but not at the expense of simple common sense and critical thinking. If you haven’t caught fish in this spot in the previous 10 times you’ve fished here, if your spouse is physically abusing you and cheating on you, then continuing to have faith will bring (sometimes unconscious) harm.
In place of having complete faith in something, we can replace that 100% certainty with the tension of some various percentage of maybe/maybe not, but we will keep educating ourselves on the issue. It shouldn’t take more energy, and it should be self-regulating; the more you know, the more you want to know and the more you realize you don’t know. But this tension, this holding of opposites, of a plurality of stimuli, is what the human mind is for. If we choose to abandon the discomfort of this tension, and run with blind faith only, then we choose to abandon our uniquely human psyche, and we become monstrous aliens on our own planet. But instead of chasing down dinner for the good of the pack, we chase down every living thing in a mad frenzied dash until there is quickly nothing left but a techno-industrial dystopia.
We can see that when reason fails to give us 100% certainty, we will turn to faith. But the point here is that the need for 100% certainty is an immature, child-like desire of the ego, and that the mature, whole psyche (one that is immersed in the fluid cycles of nature, for instance) abides in ambiguity. The common thread in both reason and faith then is this obsession with certainty, which is based in the loss of our original home, when our psyche, our whole-being, was not separate from our surroundings. Like the transitional object (T.O.) that the child needs when he is weaned from mother’s breast, the modern human needs the certainty of the ideologies of faith and reason to wean himself off the loss of Nature as home. We are born into a cultural world that does not fit our biology because, as E.O. Wilson showed us, cultural evolution happens faster than biological evolution.
Lorenz continues on the limits of this peculiar human characteristic which we have self dubbed reason:
“By itself, reason can only devise means to achieve otherwise determined ends; it cannot set up goals nor give us orders. Left to itself, reason is like a computer into which no relevant information conducive to an important answer has been fed; logically valid though all its operations may be, it is a wonderful system of wheels within wheels, without a motor to make them go round. The motive power that makes them do so stems from instinctive behavior mechanisms much older than reason and not directly accessible to rational self-observation,” (Lorenz, 248).
Every psychologist will tell us the same. The vast majority of our actions are governed by unreasonable desires, then explained/justified by reason. We too often convince ourselves that the opposite is true. And it is important to emphasize here that the “motive power” behind our behavior cannot be found within logical gymnastics. Mechanical, mathematical processes do not drive our passions any more than the complex interweaving parts of your car’s engine drives your car. It takes a “ghost in the machine” to get the thing going and to determine its direction.
Lorenz offers a helpful word on this, in his discussion on the merits of the pursuit of scientific knowledge: “The scientist knows very well that he is approaching ultimate truth only in an asymptotic curve and is barred from ever reaching it; but at the same time he is proudly aware of being able to determine whether a statement is a nearer or less near approach to truth,” (288). Our definition of asymptotic: becoming increasingly exact (or corroborative) as a variable (or variables) approaches a limit, usually infinity.
“Certainty” then, in our context, always means more certain than before, but not (and knowingly never) absolutely 100% certain. The word certainty then, semantically, and in our common use of it, is a misnomer. So again, we have to proceed (because as physical bodies we must act, whether we want to or not, whether we’re sure of something or not) a s if we were certain, when technically we can never really be certain.
This opens the door to fanaticism; that is, the irrational allegiance to/passion for one side and the hatred/intolerance of the other side. Sports is our most common way, our safest way, to sublimate this tribal trait. And the most destructive form of it is national war. They both provide the most deep seated human trait/human need of all: brotherhood, the sense of belonging to a tight knit group working for/fighting for a common cause. Adolescent gangs and high school cliques are prime examples. Nationalistic xenophobia is another. But we can see that it is based on the immature desire/longing for emotional certainty. And that is not to say that this “need to belong” is always a bad thing. Of course, it’s positive effects are community, family bond, love, etc. But it’s negative affects are this violent fanaticism. I believe we are smart enough (human-brained enough) to cultivate the former and curtail the latter. But it requires the want to hold tensioned opposites within our psyche. And it requires the equilibrium and responsibility that we’ve been speaking of.
Lorenz uses Saul’s term “equilibrium” here:
“Whatever the consequences may have been that prevented the first killers from repeating their deed, realization of these consequences and, therewith, a primitive form of responsibility must have been at work. Apart from maintaining the equilibrium between the ability and the inhibition to kill, responsible morality does not seem to have been too severely taxed in the earliest communities of true men,” (Lorenz, 250).
The physical, emotional, and spiritual energy it took to kill kept this responsibility self-regulating. Cluster bombs and chemical warfare, etc have subverted this, because cultural evolution (technology, in this case) has happened faster than biological evolution (emotional responsibility, in this case). Technological progress has created a separation from Nature and from our basic physical acts, including the act of killing and the act of war. This separation allows one to kill his neighbor by day (and kill 24 million chickens per day for the profits of massive agribusiness!), and discuss the god-given merits of “democracy, capitalism, progress” over wine and cheese by night. There is no responsibility, no accountability, no foresight beyond one generation in the onslaught of progress.
This useful urge to form brotherhoods, form tribes, to battle against the Other, was a reasonable social trait for 99% of past human life, but it doesn’t seem to apply as well in a global world.
“Loving your neighbor like yourself and risking your life in trying to save his is a matter of course if he is your best friend and has saved yours a number of times; you do it without even thinking. The situation is entirely different if the man for whose life you are expected to risk your own, or for whom you are supposed to make other sacrifices, is an anonymous contemporary on whom you have never set eyes. In this case it is not love for the fellow human being that activates self-denying behavior – if indeed it is activated – but the love for some culturally evolved traditional norm of social behavior,” (Lorenz, 252).
That is, some ism . And even more powerfully, the activation to kill abstractly comes from the abstract hate of some ism , be it communism, terrorism, etc. Again, this speaks to the power of the military platoon, the tribal band, the high school clique, and violent cult. And it speaks to the power of the middle american conservative republican in his views against the non american, the Other. But at some point, particularly the global xenophobic point, this urge for brotherhood becomes pathological.
Perhaps it is expected that Lorenz identifies humility to be the fundamental human feature that we need to work on in order to understand our plight on planet earth, but it is a bit striking that after 250 plus pages of detailed observations/descriptions of “cichlids [fish], greylags [geese], rats,” and so on, Lorenz’s other major conclusion is that we have to more engage our human ability to engender humor in our lives. I recall somewhere hearing in some undergrad Buddhism class that the only difference between animals and humans is that we have a sense of humor and they don’t (of course, the Buddhists blundered on this one, as any puppy or kitten owner or observer of dolphins or ravens will tell you).
So, we take ourselves too seriously. I offer that this happens when we are too addicted to certainty - whether it be by way of reason or faith - and too addicted to short term comforts, to the “I am right and you are wrong” mentality that we’ve gladly inherited from evolution, that worked in the tribal band context when we had to defend our small plot of land from the next band of 200 people across the way who had an entirely different language and entirely different customs from us, but that now is inappropriate in a global, nuclear weapons world. (Anthropologists often find that the name that native people call themselves translates into “the people,” whereas their word for their neighbors often translates into “the assholes, the idiots, the mean ones” or some such thing). Again, this kind of xenophobic tribalism seems appropriate, or at least has been appropriate for 99% of our evolution, for small bands, of humans or otherwise, but now with cluster bombs from 30,000 feet in the clouds and chemical warfare and so on, it’s clear we need to reevaluate this hitherto useful inheritance.
To sum up Lorenz, we must fully see the destructiveness of our spiritual pride, realize that our gift of reason will not save the world, as this world is healthier without our tampering with it, accept that we are chimps in business suits, and be able to have a laugh about it.
Our last insight comes from Stanley Diamond’s In Search of the Primitive . Diamond contrasts the connotative ways of nature-based societies with the denotative ways of modern civilization. We define connotate as to imply/suggest, to point toward, subjective, fluid meaning. And we define denotate as literal/precise meaning, rigid isness , objective definition, Platonic abstract “real.” In Civilization, there shall not be ambivalence in both natural and civic laws. The ancient Greeks and the Bible, particularly Deuteronomy, are the foundations of this sentiment for the Western world.
“In both Plato and [The Book of] Job, it should be noted, the abolition of injustice depends on the obliteration of ambivalence, and the obliteration of ambivalence is the death of tragedy. [The comedy/tragedy of everyday experience, which is played out successfully in primitive ritual and ceremony]. The Book of Job is in no sense a tragedy but something very different, a theodicy, an apology for the projection of a certain concept of God...[This] moral fanaticism, based as it is on abstract notions of pure good, pure evil and the exclusive moral possibility or fate of any particular individual - what may be called moral exceptionalism - is absent among primitive people, (Diamond, 290).
In modern civilization, according to Diamond, reality must be denotative - clearly defined, quantitative, taxonomic, linear. In nature-based societies, reality tends to be connotative - diffuse, qualitative, fundamentally malleable at its core, yet (paradoxically) cyclical (eternally recurring). These qualities reflect Nature itself, the Nature that is without mathematical grids superimposed on it.
Why must everything in modern civilization be so clearly defined? Because in the plurality of a global world, the “experts,” those who have most successfully focused their vertical awareness, must first control and manipulate Nature. Then once the “resources” of Nature are properly subdued, controlled, taxonomized, those resources must be administered in such a way as to control and manipulate the people. It is about the control of both Nature and people, the citizenry. It is the only way for a minority to rule a majority - for the minority “experts” to define the parameters of existence. Plato’s Republic is a gold standard in this respect. The current administration in America follows catastrophically in it’s wake. It is about hierarchical control.
Echoing Berman’s horizontal awareness, and J.R. Saul’s incessant obsession with rational certainty in the modern world, Diamond further explains:
“The uniqueness of the object inheres in the immediate, concentrated response of the unaided, humanly experienced eye. The object is connotative. Through the structure of analogy and metaphor that defines a discourse among primitive people, it reveals a manifold and spontaneous reality. No decisive denotative statement can be made about the object, no mathematical or metaphysical statement can define it. This heightened perception [ie horizontal awareness] is, of course, an aspect of the definition of art and commands a focus on the singularity of the object to such a degree that everything seems at once marvelous, strange, familiar and unexpected. No category can exhaust such an object; it saturates the perceiving subject. That is what William Blake, who despised Plato, meant when he said that he could look at a knothole in a tree until he became terrified. This existential perception, which is also that of the artist and the mystic, cannot be trimmed to fit a metaphysical class, and it is the converse of a theoretical construct [ie, Platonic Idealism],” (Diamond, 196).
Or in Paul Radin’s often quoted sentiment, “Primitives live in blaze of reality.” In the world of semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, the world is constantly moving. Both subject and object are constantly moving. There is no centerpiece, no immortal, abstract form from which all things derive. There is therefore an acceptance of the fluidity of existence. Conversely, in a sedentary world dominated by hierarchical structures, there cannot be fluidity. There must be certainty - religious, scientific, political, social, psychological certainty. Anything less is deemed as anarchy and blasphemy. It is a neurotic, narcissistic, desperate, and crazed notion. But it has become normalized in the modern world.
And we see John Ralston Saul’s equilibrium in the following:
“Primitive society may be regarded as a system in equilibrium...Civilization may be regarded as a system in internal disequilibrium; technology or ideology or social organization are always out of joint with each other – that is what propels the system along a given track. Our sense of movement, [which is fundamentally one] of incompleteness, contributes to the idea of progress,” (Diamond, 207).
Here in sedentary, agri-business civilization, our movement is no longer physical, yet we still unconsciously long for it, so our longings are psychically turned into ideological movement. The next ism , will save us, will give us what we long for. In Berman’s sense, we are always about to topple over. “Progress” is propelled by a sense of incompleteness, disjointedness, disequilibrium, of “there must be something better if we keep working, keep going” or “what we do/have now is not good enough, but it will be if we keep going forward into some better circumstance.” Therefore, make more money, more technology, more information, because it will eventually solve our incompleteness. That’s the genius (and/or the rub) of the idea of linear progress. It is actually never supposed to end. We’re always supposed to be on edge, anxious for a different way of life. Populations are more malleable that way. The anxiety of progress is what keeps us following the next hero (religious, economic, political, etc), who promises the remedy to our incompleteness.
“Civilization is compelled to dissect the corpses it creates...the Primitive’s society is neither compartmentalized nor fragmented, and none of it’s parts is in fatal conflict with the others. Thus he does not perceive himself as divided into homo economicus, homo religiosus, homo politicus , and so forth. For example, the Yir-Yiront, an Australian people, make no linguistic distinction between work and play. The primitive stands at the center of a synthetic, holistic universe of concrete activities, disinterested in the causal nexus between them, for only consistent crises stimulate interest in the causal analysis of society. It is the pathological disharmony of social parts that compels us minutely to isolate one from another, and inquire into their reciprocal effects,” (Diamond, 142).
“The pathological disharmony of social parts” begins with the pathological disharmony of, distrust of, separation from, natural cycles. Here is the anxiety of progress - always believing that one is, or should be, moving toward something else. It’s a pathological symptom of manufactured linear time. There is no cyclical repose, no trust in the natural order of things, just a continuous thrust to an abstract and culturally reified and ratified forward. We are at a point where our elected leader plans to drill for oil in our National Parks. And by “elected,” of course, we mean not by the majority of the population, but by the majority of some absurdly designed electoral college, where 538 elites determine the voice of millions - a social design we can only imagine Plato would be extremely proud of. The political lines are drawn, the social divisions are carefully created and maintained in place, and the illusion of a true democracy is affirmed.
This is all to suggest that since human beings have severed themselves from Nature, there has been catastrophic consequences for the quality of human life and the health of the human psyche. The Agricultural/Neolithic Revolution was the first step. The domestication (control and manipulation) of plants and animals, of natural cycles has made the wild, fluid, heightened-awareness-human into a domestic human, a domicile one, one that is constantly anxious and can’t figure out why. Then came science, and the rational, abstract control of Nature became fanatic. We cannot live it, so we must subdue it. Then came industry and the human fully converted from unfragmented personhood into “homo economicus, homo politicus” etc. In Marcuse’s terms, we became one dimensional. We all instinctively feel that being one dimensional does not seem right, but we have committed to technocratic progress, so instead of confronting the issue at it’s core and stopping the madness, we inject more of the drug more frantically, to temporarily stave off the impending crash.
“Faith in progress as the outcome of their techniques and ideas justifies Western civilized men to themselves. One must acknowledge further, that faith is the dominant idea of Western civilization...he cannot surrender the notion of progress without destroying the rationale for his entire civilization...he clings to his progressivism as he would to his sanity. It is the notion of progress that mediates his alienation, and makes it possible for him to construct a reality which he does not actually experience,” (Diamond, 39).
Diamond begins his book with what Derrick Jensen once said was his favorite all time first sentence of any book. We will conclude Diamond’s insights here with it. “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.”
So what can we do? Right now? On a practical, daily level? First, we can publicly not accept having a blundering sociopath as the “leader of the free world;” the supreme subscriber of the holy notion that the more you forcefully proselytize your certainties, the more truthful they are, no matter how untrue they actually are. The power and danger of this “revival-like” untrue-certainty-speak is revealed by the fact that half of the voting nation counts themselves as his followers - their heroic savior. Combating this absurdity doesn’t mean that we have to take to the streets with cardboard signs displaying witty epigrams, although that seems to help. It just means being 100% comfortable with calling a con-man a con-man, to call out the Emperor’s New Clothes with emotional impunity, so to speak, in a simple, non aggressive, everyday commonplace way. Second, we can express the virtues of paradox, equilibrium, compromise, cooperation, humility, and connote-over-denote, in every moment of our lives, so that our children, our neighbors, our friends and family, and “god forbid,” our governmental representatives may perhaps become inspired. This means in the meeting room, at the dinner party, at the dinner table with the kids, on the freeway when someone cuts you off, etc. Thirdly, relatedly to the second, education, but in a non-combative way. You don’t have to be Noam Chomsky to have an opinion, but you do have an opinion, and it will make more sense the more you actively inquire into what is happening. Fourthly, teach and live the virtues of brotherhood on the positive, life giving, synthesizing-of-community side. This takes the emotional work that is the subject of this paper. It takes learning to delight in the tension of opposites, the tension of synthesizing the many various, unending stimuli that enters our lives, and making any sense of it. If we blindly run with the pack and haphazardly pillage, we must see that we are pillaging our own home, our own selves, our own family, our own nation, but it is in the disguise of the falsely defined, arbitrarily hard lined boundaries, of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, hologrammed-onto-perceived-reality by the power elites, who seek to do everything in all their power to keep us from living, exercising, engendering to our youth those evolutionarily and sacred rights that synthesize community in positive brotherhood. On the fence, in the balancing of opposites, in the tension of multitudinous stimuli, is the only place where we can see that there is no Other.
In response to our initial question, we can become more human if we consciously exercise these seemingly uncomfortable sentiments: embrace mental/emotional paradox, temper the use King Reason, as we have hopefully shown that reason alone will not solve our largest problems, promote cooperation and compromise, realize that our spiritual pride has gotten us into this catastrophic ecological mess, and take comfort not in the perceived certainty of reality, but in the diffuse fluidity of it.
And our other question - what does it mean to be a responsible citizen? Someone at the May 30th Climate March in Washington said, “it’s not the survival of the planet that’s the real issue, it’s our own survival. The planet will go on without us.” It’s part of our narcissistic hubris to think that we can destroy the planet, ruin the environment, but still live as we’re used to. It’s really an issue of by living against the interests of Nature (which include us of course), it will destroy us. We think we can live against Nature, because of our short term successes. We’ve come out of the gate in the race to techno-industrial progress, and we’ve expended our energy around the first turn. So we can choose to live the rest of our time here at breakneck speed, not accepting that we’re soon about to fall on our face around the next turn, or we can choose to live at a speed and rhythm that allows our grandchildren’s grandchildren the privilege of existence.
The fundamental exercise of our human psyche shall be to question certainty, to question authoritarian certainty, rather than to uncritically follow it. Most importantly, this means that we must actively seek the tension of opposites and the ambiguity, unease of pluralities, instead of run from them. This activity we will understand, at least for now, as synonymous with critical thinking. And we will understand this activity as cultivating our human-ness. If we lay up in a hospital bed for years, our muscles atrophy, they degenerate and stop being able to be used for their purpose. Similarly, if we decide to not think critically, our psyches atrophy. They become useless, ethereal, unconscious mush. Our legs evolved for and from walking and running. Our psyches evolved for and from thinking critically. If we want to stay human, we must continue to participate in this gift, this responsibility, this unsolved mystery, which shall remain deftly unsolved forever.
1. Schumacher, 217. 2. See Fromm’s Escape From Freedom for a discussion on the psychological effects of modern individualism. 3. See Hedges’ American Fascists for a look at Dominion Theology in current conservative Christian America. 4. See the Errol Morris documentary The Fog of War, for reminisces and lessons of McNamara, one of which being the sentiment that rationality will not save humankind. 5. See Man the Hunter, where the “myth of subsistence” is exposed. That is, the idea that primitive, nature-based societies are/were always on the brink of desperate starvation, and always just barely “getting by.” This has been understood in modern anthropology as a blunder of early anthropologists as a way of justifying the destruction of non-industrial societies by industrial societies. Contrastly, it is usually found that nature-based hunter gatherers spend far less time “working” than do we in modern civilization. In short, they “get by,” both emotionally and physically, with a lot less effort than we do. 6. Iowa republican debate, Dec 13th, 1999. 7. See J.R. Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastard’s: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. 8. It is worth noting here that certainty discourages diversity, and Paul Shepard comes to mind: “Without diversity, the mind creates autonomous, hallucinatory experience,” (Man in the Landscape , 23). The image of a glazed over, robotic, good and upstanding American citizen staring into the Fox News channel for hours, day after day, year after year, generation after generation, umbilically taking in “fair and balanced” information, may come to mind.
Asymptotic: becoming increasingly exact (or corroborative) as a variable (or variables) approaches a limit, usually infinity, (Lorenz, 288).
Autocatalytic: any process that increases in speed according to the amount of the products is has created. The longer the process runs, the greater its speed, (Wilson, 84).
Cathexis: the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object, especially to an unhealthy degree, (Berman, 32).
Eternal Recurrence: in ancient Indian and Greek philosophy, among others, and revived in Western history by Nietzsche. It fell out of Western consciousness because of the idea of linear time posited chiefly by the structure of counting time by the soon second coming of Christ. In this paper, I suggest that nature-based societies contain a kind of “cyclical repose” which is contrasted with the anxiety of linear-progress-toward self-consumption-annihilation of modern civilization.
Hypertrophy: the extreme growth of pre-existing structures, (Wilson, 89).
Hypostatize: to treat or represent (something abstract) as a concrete reality, (Diamond, 165).
Hierarchy: a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority.
Ideology: a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic, political, or social theory and policy.
Platonic Idealism: abstract ideas are objective, timeless entities, independent of the physical world and of the symbols used to represent them (physical reality); they are the apex of reality - the most real, ultimate, refined form of reality. The physical, everyday life of the senses is less real.
Sublimate: to unconsciously convert psychically/socially unacceptable impulses into psychically/socially acceptable behavior.
Berman, M. Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality. Diamond, S. In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization. Lorenz, K. On Aggression.
Saul, John Ralston. The Unconscious Civilization. Wilson, E.O. On Human Nature.
Fromm, E. Escape From Freedom.
Hall, Edward T. Beyond Culture.
Hedges, C. American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. Jensen, Derrick. A Language Older Than Words.
Lakoff, G. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.
Lee, R./Devore, I. Man the Hunter.
Marcuse, H. One Dimensional Man.
Schumacher, E.F. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Shepard, P. The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game.
_________. Nature and Madness.