Some Reflections on Hurricane Sandy and an Outline for a New Civilization
The sun is out in Portland, the day is warm and gentle; gone are the terrors of the night when the Victorian wooden frame apartment house I live in shook in the wind, as it also did in this month’s earthquake–which was loud, as if the rocks had growled, letting me know that I had not escaped simply by moving off the San Andreas Fault.
My visible Lindisfarne colleague David Spangler has told me that his “invisible colleagues”–those child-like imaginary friends that prophets continue to play with, refusing to grow up to get a day job in business or industry—have informed him that the Mayan calendar year of 2012 will not have a single apocalyptic event of a giant asteroid striking the earth, or all the tectonic hot spots in Yellowstone and Hawaii blowing off at once. No, 2012 is to be a year of “rolling thunders” of many events: tectonic earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, state-wide forest fires in the American South West, droughts and floods in the Midwest, and hurricanes and inundations along the East Coast.
A serial apocalypse has the advantage that one cannot run from it into the escapism of doing nothing except waiting for Jesus to come down on a cloud to judge the living and the dead. After the terrors of the night, one wakes to the sunshine and the fact that one is still alive and, therefore, must “compose a life”—in the words of another Lindisfarne colleague and WRR contributor, Mary Catherine Bateson.
Because my life is that of a poet and cultural historian, I live through a bardic store of knowledge of the past and an imagination of the future. So for me “composing a life” means writing a new narrative of self and civilization. My first step therefore is to post here on this WRR internet community bulletin board a Want Ad.
Wanted: A New Civilization.
Willing to trade-in old Industrial Civilization for a better one.
In this Presidential election of 2012, we have heard the business leaders like Romney claim that government and society itself are businesses and market-systems and should be run by businessmen. And even Obama has fallen into line to please industry by calling for more fracking, more coal, more nuclear, and more of the industrial activities that are gassing us to death. And lest we think that turning over government from businessmen to scientists would solve all our problems, we need to remember the likes of Professor Ewen Cameron of McGill University who in the 1950s, funded by the CIA, tortured unsuspecting patients in a hospital to see if he could erase their personalities to create a tabla rasa for reindoctrination. Naomi Klein’s chilling account of this work, and the work by the economists, the “Chicago Boys,” in her bestseller, The Shock Doctrine, proves just how right C. S. Lewis was in his fear of government by social scientists, as expressed in his science fiction novel, That Hideous Strength. So by trading in businessmen leaders for scientists and the likes of Ewen Cameron, Jose Delgado, and B. F. Skinner,[i] we will not deliver ourselves from evil. Dr. Obama was a professor of constitutional law, but that still not prevent him from shredding the Constitution by giving himself the power to execute U.S. Citizens without due process of law by virtue—or lack thereof—of the National Defense Authorization Act. Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and Jefferson must be turning over in their graves at the sight of just this sort of abuse of the Executive that they tried to prevent with their system of checks and balances.
But let us for the moment not pay attention to the man behind the curtain of our elected governments in the U.S. and Canada—or men in the case of the Koch brothers–and let us not think in terms of history to recall how corporations created mercury poisoning in the seawaters and fisheries of Japan, how mining companies declared bankruptcy after poisoning the water table with arsenic and giving the local children birth defects in Colorado and Indonesia, or how Tokyo Electric (TELCO) lied about the safety of its nuclear reactors. Do not think back to the days before Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and the USDA of poisoned meat, of unsafe workplaces, of polluted air and water, and a class of workers in coalmines who were no better off than nineteenth–century serfs in Czarist Russia bound to the land. No, let us not think in terms of history, because history, as every red-blooded God-fearing true American knows–is a European, socialist, and subversive fiction, and good Americans should just not believe in such pointy-headed, unpatriotic, and un-American Marxist stories. And, indeed, thanks to our public education curriculum, Americans know little history, and less geography. Ten years ago, your average high school student could not find Canada on a map; now he or she cannot even find Kansas.
The cultural historian, no matter how humble and discreet he wishes to be, is forced into becoming a prophet, as a historical narrative implicitly presents a better world in explicitly describing an awful one. My other Lindisfarne colleague Wendell Berry is a good example of an honest and humble man forced into prophecies of liberation by the chains of events.[ii]
So I shall throw caution to the winds of Sandy, and move from the cultural history of my youth, when I wrote about the role of imagination in history in the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916,[iii] to use the narrative construction of a past to imagine a new civilization.
Evolution moves by starts and fits. The starts are often invisible and so gradual that they only become visible with hindsight—as for example in the slow shift from women gathering grains to gardening and then agriculture—an accidental and unplanned transformation that took place over a thousand years. But when evolution throws a fit, it is a big, instantaneous, “catastrophe bifurcation”—such as a gigantic asteroid striking the earth, or a tectonic rift and colossal flood.
The gradual apocalypse we have been experiencing in this twenty-first century does seem to be accelerating, and we do seem about to experience one of those “tipping points” in which the Greenland ice sheet drops into the sea and New York and London go under water, taking the world economy with them in a reprise of Atlantis.
So let us imagine that by both a series of starts and fits, global industrial civilization collapses. Such a collapse would most likely be followed by a transitional Dark Age in which rural petty war lords and urban gangs fight with one another over the control of water and food sources. Global science, as prophesied by H. G. Wells a century ago, would be forced to compress into a hidden “freemasonry of science.”
The transitional Dark Age would be most likely followed by a new Axial Age in which prophets and visionary leaders sought to assert a new moral order.
To reflect on what a new moral order might look like we need to cast industrial civilization into the mirror and imagine its mirror opposite. Industrial civilization was characterized by a mental process of reification in which living processes were reduced to dead objects, ones moving in an empty space, and only meaningfully described by the mathematics of linear dynamics. So our new mirror-opposite civilization would see all objects, even rocks, as alive, and these living beings partaking of their existence in a plenum of interpenetrating vibratory phase-spaces. Rocks are not things, but states of deep dreamless sleep in which they are resonating with the music of the spheres and embodying the supernova that gave birth to the formation of our planet. Plants are not mindless, but are in the dreaming state in which they do not move, but sway with wind, darkness, and light. And animals move and see and are alive in the waking world.
In the new civilization, there would be no such thing as a “thing,” and no such a void as empty space. The lives of such vibratory occasions would be described—or rather performed—in a kind of hieroglyphic mathematics that was both musical and algorithmic. This hieroglyphic mathematics would be one string of development of the complex dynamical systems mathematics that appeared toward the end of industrial civilization through the genius of Poincaré.
Have I lost you yet? If not, then let us proceed. Industrial civilization was also characterized by a reduction of proprioceptive awareness into an acquisitive personhood. People acquired things to know who and what they were, so a Rolex, a Mercedes Benz, a McMansion filled with envaluated objects called art provided these minimalist persons with an identity. “I am what I own” became the bourgeois capitalist development of Descartes’ reductionism of mind to “I think, therefore I am.”
But in the new proprioceptive awareness, there would not be persons or egohood, but entelechies, or processes of symbiotic consciousness in which the interpenetrating vibratory phase spaces took on a provisional identity or soul for the duration of a performative existence. For example, my late friend the biologist Lynn Margulis (another member of the Lindisfarne Association) liked to remind me that thirteen percent of my body weight was made of bacteria. I, in turn, in my love of the preindustrial forms of animism, responded: “Yes, and these bacteria are what we Irish would call ‘the little people.’ They are everywhere: in my gut, in the leaf mold at my feet, in the deep sea vents, the air, and the ice.” Lynn smiled, as she enjoyed nothing more than swapping cosmologies, and that was probably one reason she fell in love with the cosmologist Carl Sagan when they both were students at the University of Chicago—a couple soon destined to come together as parents of another member of our Lindisfarne Association and contributor to WRR, Dorion Sagan.
Through an act of cultural imagination, an entelchy would realize that it was not an isolated and discretely contained self, but that its personhood was a shared process of symbiotic consciousness. So the presence of bacteria in the gut would be experienced as a living being—a Djinn or elemental—a being that was an intimate partner to one’s existence, like a spouse. The skeletal system might present one such soul, the bacteria another, and the process of gaseous inhalation yet another. The Romantic German animist Rudolf Steiner, in his excessively dualistic system of black and white, liked to think of the respiratory system as a dynamic that was both Luciferic and Ahrimanic—the inflationary and exalted followed by the depressed and dense.
In industrial civilization, mind was epiphenomenal to the body, and consciousness was to the brain what urine was to the kidneys. But in our new civilization, the universe is a Mind composed of other fractal minds, and their consorting is literally a concert of musical dynamics. Even now, if you have a talent for yoga nada, you can hear this Nadam, or cosmic music of the spheres, by listening in meditation. Every existent sounds its note; it is a grand chorus, sort of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus to the Nth power.
Since the universe is a Mind, then consciousness is a provisional performance of being, and the consciousness of a system can change its behavior. Werner Heisenberg, in the twentieth century with his Uncertainty Principle, foreshadowed this insight concerning the primacy of mind, when he proposed that the measurement of a system alters its behavior.
Since everything is alive to the sound of music—to honor Julie Andrews and the role of sentimental kitsch in intuiting truths for the laity—one would no more think of killing a whale or a dolphin than killing a Bach or a Mozart or smashing a Stradivarius in a fit of infantile rage. So for holidays in our future Hawaii’s, one will not simply observe the whales and the dolphins, but swim and communicate with them—as foreshadowed by John Lilly in the twentieth century.[iv] And since space would no longer be empty and separating, space itself would be a plenum of vibrating streams of energy that in the medieval lore of the Jewish Zohar in Spain and of the Muslim Sufis in Andalusia were known as angels. At the end of industrial civilization, through the popularity of science fiction, these beings were often re-presented as high-tech extra-terrestrials.
Thus in my new imaginary civilization, personhood would be a We and not an I. (This is, by the way, why the Lindisfarne Association has no leader or central ideology. It has no single ideology articulated by an alpha male leader but is instead an ecology of consciousness in which difference is accepted and I serve merely as the conductor of an intellectual chamber music ensemble.) In the entelechy there would be a consort of a human, Djinns and elementals, angels, and other cosmic evolutionary streams of mind in various forms or performances of being.
In such a condition of existence as a performative rather than an objective-descriptive being, the buildings and clutter of industrial civilization as misplaced concreteness–from CO2 to plastic bags and tall skyscraper buildings–would be obsolete. Buildings would become appliances that you turn off and on with a switch. In fact, civilization would so etherealize itself in this chreode of cultural development that it would become invisible.
Who knows? Perhaps these etherealized civilizations have existed before on Earth, but we did not recognize them because they left no Stonehenge or pyramids behind. Like good environmentalists on a picnic in a National Park, they cleaned up their mess and moved on and up in the musical scales of being. Since we environmentalists of the twentieth century were so ignored by the politicians in our time, I salute these, my imaginary friends, from a past that I as a poet and cultural historian wish to see again for our future, and so I have chosen not to wait but already live with and within just such an entelechy.
[i] For a critique of Skinner and Delgado, see my essay, “Three Wise Men of Gotham” in my book, Evil and World Order (Harper & Row: New York, 1976), 20-32.
[ii] See Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (Pantheon Books, New York and San Francisco, 1993).
[iii] William Irwin Thompson, The Imagination of an Insurrection: Dublin Easter 1916 (Oxford University Press: New York, 1967); reissued by Barnes and Noble Rediscovers, 2009.
[vi] See John Lilly, The Mind of the Dolphin: A Non-Human Intelligence (New York: Avon, 1969).
William Irwin Thompson (born July, 1938) is known primarily as a social philosopher and cultural critic, but he has also been writing and publishing poetry throughout his career and received the Oslo International Poetry Festival Award in 1986. He has made significant contributions to cultural history, social criticism, the philosophy of science, and the study of myth. He describes his writing and speaking style as “mind-jazz on ancient texts”. He is an astute reader of science, social science, history, and literature. He is the founder of the Lindisfarne Association.
His book, Still Travels: Three Long Poems was published in 2009 by Wild River Books. Order a copy from Amazon.
Works by William Irwin Thompson
Memoir – Farewell Address at the Lindisfarne Fellows Conference
Memoir – Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne: 1972
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part I
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part 2: A Community in Fishcove, Long Island
Memoir – Building a Dream – Part One: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – My Dinner with Andre Gregory: Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan, 1977-1979
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Shadow Side Part Two: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Cathedral Part Three: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Conclusion: The Economic Relevance of Lindisfarne
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary: Reflections of a Homeschooling Parent
Memoir – Sex and the Commune
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary
Memoir – With Gregory Bateson’s Mind in Nature
After Heart Surgery: Hokusai’s Great Wave
A Lazy Sunday Afternoon
Nancy Grayson’s Bookstore
On Reading “The Penguin Book of English Verse”: on my iPad and Exercise Bike
Wild River Books/Poetry – Nightwatch and Dayshift: Cezanne
Anatolian Days and Nights and the Cultural Evolution of Spirituality
And the Votes are In: The American Elections of 2010
Avatar – When Technology Displaces Culture
Bedtime Story for a Civilization
The Big Picture: Reflections on Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines
The Big Picture, II
Child Abuse and the Catholic Church
The Digital Economy of W. Brian Arthur
From Shamanism to Religion, Part Two
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality, Part Three
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality: Conclusion
January 1, 2011: Reflections on the Philosophical Notions of Republicans
January 6, 2011 – Part Two: The Etherealization of Capitalism
Nature and Invisible Environments
Of Culture and the Nature of Extinction
On Nuclear Power
On Religion – Part One
On Religion and Nationalism: Ireland, Israel, and Palestine
On Transnational Military Interventions
A Pagan Ur-Text of the Lebor Gebála Érenn
Part 1 – The Shift from Industrial to a Planetary Civilization
Part 2 – The Shift from an Industrial to Planetary Civilization
Part 3 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The Recovery of a Cosmic Orientation
Part 4 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – The Global War for Drugs
Part 5 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The New Jerusalem
Part 6 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Catastrophes as the Spur to Institute Tricameral Legislature
Part 7 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Complex Dynamical Systems and Tricameral Legislatures
Part 8 – The Shift from a Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Israel and Palestine: Sic transit gloria mundi
Part 9 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – On Sarah Palin and the Technocratic Society
Part 10 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – On Conspiracy Narratives as Expressive of the Transition from the Nation: State to the Noetic Polity
Part 11 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Global Awareness and Personal Identity
Part 12 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Conclusion: The United Nations
Political Meditation for the Fourth of July, 2011: Can We Shift from Empire Back to Republic?
St. David’s Day, 2011, Technology and Social Change
Saint Patrick’s Day, 2010: Us and Them: Identity and the State
Some Reflections on Hurricane Sandy and an Outline for a New Civilization
Technical Hubris: and the Sinkhole of Obama’s Centrism
Television and Social Class
Thanksgiving Day, 2010: The Uses and Abuses of History
The Elections of 2010
Thoughts on My new Kindle App: on My Mac iPad