Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I wasn’t surprised to discover how few of my friends had heard of William Irwin Thompson, when I found out he was coming to town. His disregard for the conceits of the establishment, and the counter-culture, don’t win him large audiences. Nor does he want to be a celebrity (he originally objected to his photograph being in this issue because he feared “becoming like a Norman Mailer”).
With the easy authority and high drama of an announcer broadcasting the World Series, Thompson has for the last 10 years been telling us about the emergence of a new planetary order. Unlike so many contemporary thinkers, he knows history, and unlike so many historians, he knows the importance of myth and symbolism. Most importantly, he’s onto the biggest story of all — the transformation of consciousness. And he’s realistic enough to wonder whether “the recovery of the sense of the sacred” is going to happen in time to save us.
Preserving what’s sacred is one of the goals of Lindisfarne, a community Thompson founded in 1973 in Southhampton, N.Y., after a decade of teaching the humanities at M.I.T. and at York University. Lindisfarne, a “contemplative community of scholars devoted to the study and realization of a new planetary culture,” moved to Crestone, Colorado last year, where plans are now underway to build a “meta-industrial village,” starting with a mediation hall, a conference center, and faculty housing. Among Lindisfarne Fellows — an association of individuals “whose work embodies the new spiritual planetary culture” — are Gregory Bateson (Steps to an Ecology of Mind), the poet Gary Snyder, the musician Paul Winter, Peter and Eileen Caddy of the Findhorn Foundation, architect Paolo Soleri, and John Todd of the New Alchemy Institute. Thompson says:
“If one stops to recall that the Renaissance and the emergence of the modern world system was initiated by a small group of scholars and artists, then one can see the importance of new ways of thinking and feeling for the creation of a new world culture.”
Thompson’s books include At the Edge of History; Passages about Earth; Evil and World Order; and Darkness and Scattered Light.
He was invited to the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill as part of a Carolina Symposium on “The American Way.” What follows are excerpts from a talk he gave last Feb. 22, and an interview. For more information on Lindisfarne, write The Lindisfarne Institute, Baca Grande Ranch, Crestone, Colorado 81131.
The photograph mentioned above is available as a PDF only. Click here to download.
Whenever I talk about contemporary culture, someone says, “You talk about transformation and change but I don’t see anything. I just see conservatism and the eternal values being stronger than ever and people going in the other direction instead of forward. All the talk of transformation is illusory.”
The problem is that most of the large, helpful transformations of history are invisible. Agriculturalization takes thousands of years; civilization takes centuries. If you project all these transformations onto a timeline, starting with big bang and moving towards the present, you would find a kind of logarithmic progression in the change and the rate of transformation. We start with a scale of billions of years with big bang and then we move into evolutionary scales with millions of years. With agriculture we begin to get an acceleration of history. Once we get into civilization, writing and literacy, and the intensification of information, the rate of change begins to pick up. Then with the technology and cybernetics of our world, we begin to see a rate of change indefinitely where knowledge will double every ten years and where full technology will almost reincarnate every five years. The rate change is so fast and the individual life is so long that the individual and not the species can become the theater of the evolutionary transformation.
So part of the problem is that the cultural transformations that someone like myself talks about are not really historical events. They are on so large a scale that they tend to reflect themselves down into our consciousness through mythology or art or religious movements and begin to be reflected through the unconscious, rather than being seen through the limitations of the conscious ego as an historical event that you can see in the daily newspaper. What this means then is that if you want to see time, if you want to see history and understand the historical moment that you are living in, you have to go to those mythological expressions. To understand what is happening you must go to science fiction or art or religious movements or to philosophies that are not necessarily conscious, rationalist, and native creations. By looking in those directions then you begin to see what is going on.
For example, around 1500, we moved out of the medieval and into the modern world, away from sacred values to secular values, away from the world church to the world economy. It was a fantastic transformation in the individual’s perception of nature and the universe. The whole, larger event wouldn’t be experienced by anyone as an event but nevertheless would be expressed in the visionary paintings of, say Hieronymus Bosch. If you look at his painting “The Last Dungeon” with all hell breaking loose on the bottom and Jesus come to judge the fallen world, you get a sense of the world ending, of apocalypse and transformation. The world didn’t end but in a sense the world system did end. And the only person who could really make it visible was the artist.
You can begin to understand the beginning of something when you are at the end. The two sides are somewhat alike, or if you want to look at it more visually, think of this as the turn of a spiral and as you are about to move into something you can see what it was you moved into so long ago. The period of, say, 1500 to 2000 is one kind of cultural epoch that can be called the modern world system. We are now moving from the modern world system to the new one, whatever you want to call it. I’ve used the phrase Planetary Culture. You can call it something else.
We’re moving from a period of expansion in which we have discovered a new world, new markets. It’s been a voyage of discovery, moving from that neat, concentric, medieval universe to one that is a kind of centrifugal force spinning out with new energies, and new humanism. But outside expansion has reached its limits. We are moving into a new kind of opposite phase that could be called neo-medievalism. It is more a sense of implosion. We feel the limits, we feel the ecological pressures of the biosphere, we feel the limits of certain kinds of industrial mentalities. Lewis Thomas, in Lives of a Cell, says the planet is most like a living cell and that we are all organelles within the single cell. If that is your perception of nature then your vision of your economic relationship with your neighbor is quite different than if you feel you are an autonomous individual moving around in a free market system, that you are basically by yourself. So that as one vision of interconnections goes out and another one comes in, the implications of personal relationships, of economic relationships, of political relationships all follow from this new archetypal world image.
Now Lewis Thomas is one of these marvellous fellows who is almost artist and scientist together because he started out as a poet and he still writes as a poet. If we look around and ask who are the Boschs of the modern era I don’t think we have to look very far. A clear individual with very Bosch-like sensibilities is the novelist Doris Lessing who in The Four-Gated City, or Shikasta, or Memoirs of a Survivor has presented a complete Bosch-like vision of the end of the world, a vision of apocalypse. The German composer Stockhauser has given expression in his music for a very apocalyptic sensibility in works like Imnan or Garislau, which is his whole apocalyptic sense of being at the edge of some overwhelming catastrophe and some overwhelming revelation. Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker, in Heart of Glass, presented the vision of a community based on an economy and what happens when the secret to the economy is lost and the whole community hovers on the edge of disaster. There have been other graphic studies of the native American Indian traditions like The Book of the Hopi, or The Prophecies of Phillip Deere, that give voice to the apocalyptic imagination, and in more populist forms, The Late Great Planet Earth. So, whatever subculture you are in, you get different performances of this sensibility of the latter days.
Now Marshall McCluhan said about eight years ago in Understanding Media that the artists are the early warning system of a culture. More often than not the artist is slightly ahead of the culture and is giving voice to the future in ways that we think are simply fantasies.
So what you have in these catastrophic novels, say, of Doris Lessing, are the first indications of a whole shift in our view of nature. In the nineteenth century, when we were expanding industrial society, the idea was that Nature behaved like a gentleman. All the changes were slow, polite, and orderly. There was a stable crust of the earth upon which the concept of progress could be built and the whole intellectual structure of industrial society could be constructed. Now, look at the novels of Doris Lessing or just page through the issues of Science or Nature. You begin to see continuing studies of catastrophe. Even last week, in the New York Times, there was an article about the catastrophic theory of explosions in space and how they form galaxies. Our large picture of what the universe is about is no longer of the tranquil, Victorian gentleman behaving in the divine way according to the rules set down and observed by all civilized Englishmen. It is a universe that is much more wild, more unpredictable, more full of catastrophe on a cosmic scale. What goes on in a compost heap goes on in outer space. Whole stars are turned back into compost and then turned into living matter. We have not accepted this new cosmology in our economic or political theories because it makes us very nervous. So it’s only really kicking around in movies, in mythologies, in science fiction, and in things of this sort. But it is nevertheless beginning to be a guiding world image.
Now the main question when you line up all these visions of apocalypse is this: are they telling us that the modern world system is de-structuring and a new world system is coming about, or are these advanced prophetic warnings telling us that we are at the edge of apocalyptic destruction? Is it going to be a continuous transition, such as we experienced in the shift from the medieval world system to the modern world system, where Bosch could paint the end of the world but the world didn’t literally end? Or are we really up against it and is it going to be the end of the world in some colossal way? Now of course no one knows the answer to this and I certainly don’t. Half the week I’m thinking that it’s going to be a continuous transition and that somehow we’ll muddle through and slowly evolve from one world system to another. The other half of the week, I’m thinking it’s going to be a discontinuous transition and much more painful.
We are living out the decline of post-industrial civilization. The energy crisis, the Iranian revolution, signal that we’re at the end of a period. Basically, we tried to Americanize the planet. We thought that Los Angeles was the model, and that all cities, whether they were Tehran or Tokyo or Melbourne or Cairo, would go the way of Los Angeles, and would have parking plazas and shopping centers and freeways and smog. And we created, in our government, philosophies of modernization that were basically the apology and rationalization for what that was all about.
In Iran, for example, the doctrine of modernization was applied in a completely linear way without any sensitivity to Islamic culture or what was going on. When the nativistic revolt of the Iranians against the U.S.-Shah modernization exploded in our faces, rather than understand what it was all about, we simply began to get caught up in the image of the Ayatollah versus the hostages. Now, perhaps this coming investigation in the U.N. into the behavior of Americans in Iran over the last thirty years might provide an occasion for us to re-examine the doctrine of modernization, and see what the relationships of modernization and authoritarian governments are; and to really call into question this notion that modernization is exactly what we must do with the rest of the world.
We’re reaching a point now where all the articles in Science are continually talking about planetary damage from the greenhouse effect and the aerosols and the fluorocarbons in the atmosphere, and that if we switch from nuclear power to coal, we’re going to make it worse. So, if we have high employment, we’re going to have high planetary damage. If we try to have ecological stewardship, then we run the risk of massive unemployment. How are we going to handle this relationship when it seems that whatever industrial society tries to do doesn’t work?
It seems that we’re in a double bind. If you do A, you lose; if you do the opposite, B, you also lose. So what does industrial society do? Certainly, it seems in the other characteristic of the modern world, of urbanization, we’ve reached a point where if you continue, and Mexico City ends up with twenty million people in twenty years, then that form of archetypal urbanization is simply going to create an opposite where the city is so large it collapses upon itself, like a gravity-collapsing star, and becomes a black hole. If two percent feed the other ninety-eight percent, and all of that is based on cheap, abundant fossil fuel, then we’re a colossus, like a pyramid resting on its point, and a mere flick of the finger of Mother Nature can send the whole colossus down. If we had five years of bad weather, with acutely bad Winters and really dry Summers, we would be in for a horrendous situation, in terms of global food and crisis.
The other problem that seems to be very clearly part of the modern world that is coming into contradiction is the nation-state. The obvious problem is that the defense of the nation-state threatens the survival of the human species. But, there is something else important that’s going on. When one looks at the nationalism of the Welch and the Quebecois and the Basques and the Scots, it isn’t so much a rational, common-sense relationship to the world system as it is an identity nationalism. This is where Canada is very important, because Canada was a classic, young industrial nation-state built upon a railroad that was designed to connect coast-to-coast, center to periphery, and create Canadian national identity. So that Canada is basically a classical, nineteenth century railroad nation-state. But now, in the age of electronics and television and global travel, that kind of center-periphery dialectic is disintegrating. And there’s a much more complex ecosystem, where the forms of relationship of nation-state to larger entity are being redefined. I personally feel that if Canada can redefine the relationship of what they like to call in Quebec sovereignty association, that they will have worked out a solution for the homicidal problems of Ulster and southern Ireland, and may have worked out the formula for the relationship of nation-state and planetary federation for the twenty-first century.
The redefinition of nationalism is telling us that as we evolve to a planetary culture — which right now only exists in myth, religion, and art — our identities become involved with the species, but, at the same time, that’s too big and abstract, and we need to devolve to have a regional identity. So, it’s more important to say I’m from North Carolina than it is to say I’m American. It’s more important to say I’m Quebecois rather than to say I’m a Canadian. All the old nationalisms are coming apart. The question, of course, is: Are we going to have a global war between ourselves and the Soviet Union, or are we going to create a planetary culture before the war? Given human nature, we always tend to do things when it’s too late.
Are we going to have a global war between ourselves and the Soviet Union, or are we going to create a planetary culture before the war?
Are we going to have a global war between ourselves and the Soviet Union, or are we going to create a planetary culture before the war?
At any rate, it seems that the old structure of the modern world system of industrial society is built on a kind of center-periphery dialectic where the resources are at the periphery and the elite are at the center, and one dominates the other. And so, as that structure is beginning to come to its limits, we see the rise of terrorism which is the response of the powerless at the periphery to strike at the powerful at the center. But, if you’re in a planetary culture that’s much more polycentric, then there isn’t that imbalance where you have to have the terroristic attack of the periphery on the center. If the relationship of Alaska to its own resources is quite different from being dominated by the oil companies and Park Avenue, then the polarization between Alaska and Park Avenue takes on a wholly different quality. So, naturally, the relationship of resources and nationhood are imminently linked.
Many different thinkers are saying that the structure of consciousness that we’ve been living in for the last hundred years or so, in classical industrial society, is bankrupt, exhausted, and we have to learn to think in new ways. The notion that the elite are all in London, Paris, and New York, and they create culture, and dominate and create the model for the rest of the world, is beginning to fade. We still see it. We still have a situation that if Harvard moves to a unified, core curriculum, then the University of North Carolina has to follow up very quickly. And so you have this kind of center-periphery dialectic still going on. But, now, for the first time, people can think the unthinkable, that maybe the centers of cultures are not actually the vessels that are creating the new culture, but are the museums of the old. I think we’re a seeing a shattering of the kind of easy confidence in the religion of progress that’s been so associated with industrial society. And the fact that the common man on the street is uneasy, and is given to worrying about the apocalypse, is a signal of lack of faith in the adequacy of the managers to deliver the millennium.
If you do A, you lose; if you do the opposite, B, you also lose. So what does industrial society do?
If you do A, you lose; if you do the opposite, B, you also lose. So what does industrial society do?
In the Eighties, it isn’t simply going to be Canada that’s going to try to reassemble its parts. I think the Central Asian republics in the Soviet Union are also going to be faced with nativistic revolutions and the unity of Islam. Ironically, the Soviet Union probably invaded Afghanistan as a signal to the Central Asian republics to stay in line. But, in some ways, that is having the opposite reaction. It will probably encourage them in the same way as the British encouraged the Irish by trying to keep them down. In every generation there is some form of revolt. So I think the revolutions you saw in 1916 in Ireland you’re likely to see in the Central Asian republics in the Soviet Union. Which means we’re going to have to be very sympathetic with the Soviets because they’re paranoid. In America we tend to forget that they’ve been overrun, that they lost twenty million people in World War II, and that part of their national psyche, all the way back to the days of the Tartars, is being overrun, whether they’re overrun by Hitler or by Napoleon or by Asia. Part of the Russian psyche is fear of Asia and distrust of Europe. So, in some sense, we have to find a way to calm down their paranoia, because their paranoia gets very dangerous for us. It’s easy to be threatened and for us to become paranoid of the Russians too. If they get paranoid and we get paranoid, then we’re in for trouble. The modern world system goes up in a flash.
A new world order is going to require a new way of thinking. Just as our American revolution was preceded by a philosophical revolution, and the heritage of the Enlightenment, in the same way you can look out in the world now, you begin to see the ideological origins of the new world order revolution. We’re still in the stage where it’s for the most part myth, art, religion and philosophy, and we haven’t yet moved into the stage of politics, economics, organization, implementation. Everything, it’s been said, begins in mysticism and ends in politics. The ideas that were kicked around mystically in the Seventies are already, even in this presidential election, beginning to be talked about. I think by the middle of the Eighties, a lot of these ideas are going to be much closer to being refined.
As we begin to move into more ecological modes of thought we’re beginning to see the truth can’t be expressed in ideology. It’s more like an ecology of conflicting opposites. It isn’t the case that communism is wrong and capitalism is right. In the world system the interaction between planned economy and collectivism versus free market system and individualism is a case where they are both simultaneously right. Now I think one of the first prophets of that way of thinking was the physicist Niels Bohr, who said that the opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth is another profound truth. Now, as we move to the planetary constitutional convention of 1989, let’s say, we’re going to need to have a form of thinking that isn’t a monolithic single mentality with a planetary civic religion and a general systems consolidation. It’s going to have to be much more subtle. You have a sense of the planet: there is forest and there is savannah and there is jungle and there is deciduous forest and there are gardens. Ecology is going to become a central metaphor for how we organize our society. It’s going to be one in which we have to simultaneously affirm equal and opposite truths. We will have to affirm the principle of hierarchy. America tends to go to one extreme and say there is no such thing as hierarchy but we forget the principle in nature that the sun comes in, but the atmosphere takes the energy and acts as a transformer and steps it down so that it is available to us through plant growth and other things. If we were to get this energy directly we would all grow incorrectly and have cancer. So there are some times in culture that you have to have these transformers and you have to have energy being stepped down. But you also have to have a return of the energy from the bottom and any time you have a rigid hierarchy then you have to break it up by having redemption from the primitive, where the tribal man can attack the priesthood and implement the revolution. So the redemption through the primitive, or revolution through the primitive, is almost an archetype through the history of civilization. So we have to affirm egalitarianism and democracy. We have to see hierarchy and democracy as equally profound principles.
The way we can do that is through the image of the hologram — that each individual is, in a sense, a hologram of the entire universe. All the principles operative throughout the universe are operative within the individual. The individual is the place where evolution is taking place; every microcosm mirrors the macrocosm. And therefore you don’t have a hierarchy where you have to wait for the guru to lay it on you and you have no authenticity in and of yourself. What it means when you take hierarchy and egalitarianism and you bring them together is you get a relation in principle. Values are not objects. Value is a relationship. If you overlay one pattern with another a third pattern emerges. You have continent and ocean. The way they relate to one another is related to the circulation of the gaseous atmosphere and the movement of that water from the ocean onto the land creates life. You don’t try to make the continent like the ocean or the ocean like the continent. So we have to have a world polity in which collectivists and individualists are both simultaneously interacting but neither one dominating or trying to lord it over the other. We have to move away from a simple ideological mode of thought where there are good guys and bad guys and I’m right and you’re wrong — the classical ideological mentality you can see in the Ayatollah, who is not on the much higher levels of Islamic consciousness of the Sufi or the Initiator. If he were, he would have the compassion with which the Koran opens. His approach is to dehumanize his opponents and say they are all devils. That’s the classical ideological mentality and I think it’s the mentality that, when carried to an extreme, always generates conflict, always dehumanizes its opponent. If we begin to see a relational system of consciousness then we can begin to see the relationships playing themselves out in time — that every process for the achievement of value turns in its complete development into its opposite. So you begin with Jesus and you end up with the Inquisition. You begin with America as a little revolutionary country fighting with the British Empire and you end up with us as an empire putting down all the revolutionaries in Vietnam.
As soon as someone has moved from being a figure of authority to become a figure of power something in the ecology of ideas must rise up to reincarnate that principle of authority. Again Iran: in the battle between the Shah and the Ayatollah you had the classic conflict between power and authority. There was a religious figure in the suburbs of Paris with no power and there was the Shah with all the power and wealth and the army. Then the Ayatollah moves into power. If he did as Gandhi did and said, “I will not take power. I will just be a religious counselor,” then he could have remained a figure of authority. But because he didn’t and became attached to his revolution and tried to control all the expressions of the ego rather than the higher consciousness of the higher self, he turned into his opposite and became another Shah. So what it means is that someone else has to become a figure of authority to challenge his role.
If Jerry Brown were President and all the Lindisfarne ideas were now in Washington, someone would have to rise up to challenge Lindisfarne and call into question its role. Someone else has to become the figure of cultural authority. So you’ve always got to have a polarization between authority and power because, of course, power corrupts so you need a Walt Whitman who is not President to speak for what Americans truly think. The President doesn’t express the fullness of what the country’s all about.
We have to begin in the next ten years to figure out a new nation-state system. We need to orchestrate the four worlds — the capitalist world, the Communist world, the resource-rich world, and the resource-poor world. We need to move to a four-party system of liberal, reactionary, conservative, and radical and not simply good guys and bad guys.
As we begin to think in these more quadratic ways, our sports will change. When we were in the traditional period of more didactic thought and linear thinking, all our sports were pretty much the same, whether it was basketball or hockey. You have two goals; you have good guys and bad guys and they are fighting. I think in sports of the future, it’s more likely four teams and in the act of striking there’s a sudden alignment with a different group and whole new alignments being made in the act of going for the ball. The whole complexity of the game is going to be a new image of how sports reflects the world. Stewart Brand’s attempt to introduce New Games as part of a new planetary culture is very important.
If we’re going to move beyond ideological thinking (this is my opinion, you’re right and I’m wrong), we have to have a different kind of meditative training — where we can begin to gain detachment from our ego and can begin to see the difference between the ego and the higher self. We can move to the edges of the higher ego and realize Bill Thompson’s not what it’s all about and somebody stands up to say, “You’re full of it,” and suddenly a new truth, a new energy begins to emerge and in that relationship more is available for consciousness than it could be if I were simply saying, “This is the truth.”
So what it means is non-ego in the person, non-ideology in the polity. And I think we are beginning to see this already in the rise of meditation and the rise of these new forms of consciousness expansion. These occur in places that are the most involved with electronics and cybernetics. That the landscape of California is space colony, aerospace industry, cybernetic computer chips, Jerry Brown, and Zen Buddhism is no accident. Because I think the new mode of consciousness is a realization that the world is not made up of objects and matter — it is made up of information. The meditating Zen Master has as much to tell us about the nature of reality as the IBM cyberneticist working on computers. In this sense, even though I have some quarrels with Jerry Brown, I feel his instinctive sense of blending cybernetics and Zen Buddhism is definitely the historical landscape. You’re going to see much more of that, the relationship of opposites between science and mysticism, as this old world system reaches its climax in Orwell’s lovely year of 1984.
William Irwin Thompson