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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Counter Culture and Instrumental Reason

The Myth of Objective Consciousness

In the last two chapters of The Making of a Counter Culture, Theodore Roszak went for it. Here, rather than describe the actuality of sixties counter culture, he tried to direct its energies towards a specific target. It was an ambitious aim : to replace the dominant ideology.

The dominant ideology of the technocracy is that the only true description of reality is provided by objective consciousness / instrumental reason, AKA science.

Against this ideology, Roszak invoked shamanic magic [quoting from native American/ first nation sources as well as William Blake in support].

This was a very ambitious challenge for the counter culture to take up and achieve. So ambitious that it failed. If there is a challenge to technocracy, it comes from a revival of fundamentalist interpretations of monotheistic religion not shamanic magic. From mystification rather than mystery.

The shaman may be an outsider, but she/he is an outsider on the edge of cultures which are not based on the myth of objective consciousness. Currents and traditions of magic(k) have survived within / on the edge of cultures which are based on belief in the power of instrumental reason, but, e.g. Thelemic Magick, they require a degree of commitment and practice alien to the counterculture. Even chaos magic, which emerged out of an overlap between postmodernism and the counterculture, remains a minority pursuit. "New Age" and neo-paganism belief systems also emerged out of the counterculture, but pose no real challenge to the dominant paradigms of the technocracy.

Or am I looking at this the wrong way? That the monolithic and absolutist 'technocracy' described by Roszak no longer exists. That rather than converge upon a ' Unified Theory of Everything', science has fragmented, has been unable to discover/ create a total history.

Maybe Roszak himself believed in the triumph of technology/ instrumental reason/ objective consciousness as a brute fact of history rather than as a persuasive myth. He was writing at the height of the Vietnam war. In the midst of [Paris May 1968 etc] a cultural revolution - but a revolution he anticipated would be defeated by a conservative counter-revolution.

So are the 'neo-cons' now triumphant? Politically yes. [i.e. Iraq war, but looking less and less like a swift victory and more and more like slow defeat]. Culturally no - a point Jonathon Green makes in his 1998 reflection on the sixties "All Dressed Up" - that large chunks of the counter culture's agenda are now taken for granted. The main difficulties here come from religious fundamentalists- but if they win, technocracy would begin to wither- science would once more become impossible.

Increasingly, it looks as if global climate change is going to be the deciding factor. Assuming that it is a reality and not some weird conspiracy theory...

Funny one really. On one hand it has emerged as a force for change like some external 'deus ex machina' but it is also an internal process, a 'Gaia ex machina'.

Pause. Torn between two different ways to proceed. One is to skate over the deep philosophical questions and focus on what is practical. There other is to slow down and explore the background before proceeding. My feeling is I need to backtrack before trying to move forward.

Lets go back...

1.But how far back? To Chris Knight's Blood Relations. Chris' theory is that (very roughly)
150 000 years ago, our ancestors made a shift from being 'almost' human-like apes to 'actual' human-like beings. Chris identifies the factor in this shift as menstruation (linked to the lunar cycle and hunting) - which triggered the evolutionary emergence of 'culture' out of and in response to 'nature'.

2. Immediately there is a problem. Chris' suggestion is just one among many competing versions of 'how we became human'. But as Chris points out, all are 'ideological' - all reflect back into the past contemporary positions which in turn are used to justify (in circular logic) those current positions. "Man the Killer Ape" is an alternative. [See Donna Haraway's Primate Visions for more detailed discussion of this theme]. At this first stage, women were the physical creators of culture through myth and ritual associated with the 'magic' of menstruation - that which distinguished ourselves from our ape cousins and all other mammals.

3. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Chris' argument has some validity, where does it take us? That as the first humans moved out of Africa and across the world, they took with them a human culture which was intimately embedded in nature, and which adapted itself to local ecologies and environments. This aspect of Chris' theory allows him to make sense of social anthropologist Claude Levi- Strauss' 'structural' approach to myth and kinship. Having struggled at SOAS to understand Levi-Strauss, this impressed me. Suddenly it all fitted together!

4. The next step - the step which began the separation of nature from culture- involved the seizure by men of the mystery of 'culture' from women and its separation from 'nature'. Did this really happen? It certainly did in myth. And in history - where male supremacy has justified itself on the belief that women are closer to nature and so further from culture.

5.The final stage - the stage we are at now - started with farming about 10 000 years ago but only really took off with the beginnings of civilisation (cities, armies and writing) a few thousand years ago. Writing was a critical advance - the beginning of history. With writing, knowledge began to accumulate. The Greek and Roman civilisations might decline and fall, but their knowledge survived to inspire a renaissance and then an enlightenment. And then a scientific and industrial revolution.

6.Coal into steam into power. It is yet another suggestion fraught with counter arguments, but what pushed 18th century Britain beyond the level of technological and cultural development attained by the Roman Empire and other (Egyptian, Chinese etc) civilisations was the liberation of the energy locked up in coal. In the fossilised remains of forests which had grown and absorbed energy from the sun 300 million years before. To move beyond a slave based economy. [But don't forget that wealth created by African slaves and sucked out of India stimulated the industrial revolution: see Robin Blackburn: The Making of New World Slavery]].

7. The blazing furnaces of Britain’s industrial revolution forged the modern world as sparks from their fires were carried across the globe. It was a fossil fuel fired chain reaction. A reaction which is still blazing forth - a pillar of smoke by day, a pillar of fire by night.

8. The triumph of culture over nature? Perhaps. But what if nature is not so dumb? What if our culturally conditioned intelligence is a product of / a development from an intelligence embedded in nature? Physically, it must be so. [Unless one is a believer in unnatural divine intervention/ design]. The human brain is the product of natural evolution. Nature has given us the hardware, and our engagement with nature over the past 150 000 years or so has given us the cultural software which runs on this hardware.

9. This creates a bit of problem. Rationally based human culture is very recent. Only we modern humans can claim to have an accurate and scientifically valid conception of nature/ reality. We have history, our ancestors only had myth. Logically then, their understanding of reality was false- their lives were based on lies. How then did they survive long enough (150 000 years) to give birth to us? Why did they not all jump over cliffs under the impression they could fly - lacking our knowledge of the effect of gravity? Or poison themselves eating unsafe food? Or get crushed after building huge temples that fell down?

10. Either they were not so stupid as we like to believe they were, or we as not so clever as we like to believe we are. Logically, since we exist, they cannot have been that stupid, otherwise we would not exist.

11. In which case- lacking our scientific knowledge of the world, how did our ancestors survive? I suggest that they survived because at least some of (a necessary and sufficient number of) their myths connected with reality, with nature. A nature which supplied the 'intelligence' [as we understand the word] necessary for their survival.

12. With global climate change, the boot is now on the other foot. What ever happens, no doubt some humans will survive. But will modern/ technocratic culture? That is more doubtful. Ours is such an energy dependent ' just in time' culture that any prolonged loss of power would destroy it. We do not have the flexibility to cope with the likely physical impact of global climate change - but do we have the flexibility to adapt to the 60% reduction in co2 emissions necessary to check global warming?


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