Lessons from history 02
1. power societies disrupted the human societal code that was practiced over the preceding two hundred thousand years
2. from a tribal animistic worldview to a power propaganda worldview
3. individuals and societies are the polarities of humanity and their dance shapes societal reality
4. capture of the mind by the internal mechanics of the reason of capital during Modernity
5. daily culture memes, that successfully replicate along the generations, are integrated in the worldview which thus gradually evolves
6. rupture in the west versus continuity in China
7. at the bifurcation points from societal chaos to order human ideals and dreams weigh on the selection of the path forward
8. art is a tool for societies to generate higher levels of societal cohesion
9. were the turning points toward power and later toward the reason of capital worth the mass of tears they provoked?
To limit the size of this post the total content of this section about "Lessons from history" in 2 installments. The table of content relating to the present post is given in purple.
6. Rupture in the west versus continuity in China
The first occurrence of this differentiation appeared when imperial structures succeeded to stabilize their power and to reproduce it over generations. I introduced this notion of rupture in the West and continuity in China in "The axioms of civilization. 2. Imperial stabilization" where I stated "... the religious worldview, in the Middle-East, was imposed after total eradication, or partial recuperation, of all signs and practices of the prior belief. Animism was thus eradicated from the collective memory and the knowledge acquired along its tens of thousands of years of incremental advances through observation was irremediably lost. This is to be contrasted with what happened further East. In China animism has never been eradicated. Early Chiefs and Kings used it as their societal worldview to keep their subjects glued in belief. Shaman continued to officiate in their traditional role only to be called Wise-men or Sages later on."
I then answered why and how such a stark differentiation between East and West could possibly have taken place.
In "The axioms of civilization 3. The axioms of East and West" I explain the formation of the axioms of East and West and how this differentiated their approach at generating knowledge about reality. "Knowledge in China starts with the study of the body of past accumulated observations to which sages add refinements based on their own observations. In such a method knowledge production is incremental. Knowledge about the general is induced from observation of the particular and added on top of the knowledge base transmitted from the generations that came before. So the Chinese civilization has no moment zero, no real starting point, from where civilizational axioms were derived and this distinguishes it from the Western civilization. The Western way at generating knowledge starts with the elaboration of general abstract models from which one deduces particular conclusions. This perhaps partly explains why the body of animist knowledge had simply to be destroyed by Christianity to be replaced by a story that is totally detached from any pragmatic concern for the daily well being of the individual."
In sum rupture was the foundation of Western civilization while continuity was the foundation of Chinese civilization. Now we have to remember that those civilizations are still in place today and that our societies are functioning along the lines of their initially posited civilizational axioms. This means that when Modernity emerged and matured in Western Europe, into philosophic rationalism, it was posited as a break with the religious worldview of the past and rationality was indeed posited as a "general abstract model from which one deduces particular conclusions". In China the late adoption of Modernity was decided as an incremental process of integration of capitalist economics within the fold of Chinese society for reasons of what was perceived as the urgent task of national defense against a Western expansionist capitalism that was threatening to overwhelm Chinese society and destroy Chinese Traditional Culture and its civilizational roots. When Deng Xiaoping unified the communist party behind his idea of reforms the clock was a few minutes only before mid-night. Entering its 4th decades of reforms at breakneck speed China is now reaching the point when it should be sufficiently strong economically to guarantee that there will be no break-down, no rupture, but continuity. What this implies is that Modernity will be integrated into the Chinese civilization and not the Chinese civilization integrated within Modernity.
This view is at the antipodes of what is commonly expressed by Western sinologists - economists - strategists who project the axioms of their own civilization onto the Chinese dynamic and this projection concludes since decades past that the Chinese experiment is doomed to crash. Reality has proven each of their statements wrong. The conclusion should be evident that there is no way to understand China by projecting on it Western axioms of civilization but the problem of Western sinologists - economists - strategists is that they ignore the existence of such axioms in the first place.
One can't insist enough on the truly earth shattering nature of the new reality of China's integration of Modernity into the Chinese civilization and not Modernity's integration of the Chinese civilization.
Apart from what this new reality means for China itself it also sets the stage for the following:
Added together all these elements render this new reality, of China integrating Modernity into the Chinese civilization and not Modernity integrating the Chinese civilization, earth shattering indeed.
7. at the bifurcation point from societal chaos to order human ideals and dreams weigh on the selection of the path forward.
The different outcomes in history within different societies very clearly indicate that historical change is being affected by the different attitudes of societies. As we have exposed often already the axioms of their civilization and the worldviews of societies are largely determining their actions and path forward. This observation reinforces my conviction about the impact of humanity on the creation of the future. But let's be clear here such a historical impact does not come from individual actions but from societal behavior. In other words what I posit here is that societal behavior has possibly the capacity to orient the path toward the future. For proof the present submission of our societies to the mechanics at play within the reason of capital, which is responsible for the side-effects of Modernity, is indeed driving humanity straight over the cliff.
But how does this all work out in practice?
This idea started to coalesce in my mind after reading an interview by the magazine NPQ with Illya Prygogyne "a Belgian physical chemist and Nobel Laureate noted for his work on dissipative structures, complex systems, and irreversibility." (1)
Prygogyne's most important scientific contribution, in my mind, was to quell determinism by positing that probability and self-organization are driving the future out of chaos. He sums this up in the following statement: "The equations of chemistry are non-linear. When we rapidly push a chemical system away from equilibrium toward "disorder," or disequilibrium, the chemical reactions that occur present us with what I call "bifurcation points"--points at which choices and new solutions appear. Generally, more than one solution appears, so that at the point of bifurcation, probability and self-organization come into play" (2).
This throws in the dustbin of history the old idea of linear determinism and introduces the idea that uncertainty, instability and disequilibrium, are pushing a reaction that generates like a buffer overrun that opens to multiple possible solutions. That buffer overrun opens to multiple solutions in what Prygogyne presents as a "bifurcation point". He also has the prescience to warn us that the one possible solution that ends up being selected as the future, among the multiple present at the bifurcation point, is not bound to be fatalistically leading to progress. The one possible solution that will end up as the future can very possibly return us back to the stone age eventually. "By definition, novelty contains aspects of things that did not exist before. But one should not necessarily identify novelty with optimization. Novelty can be either good or bad." (2).
The universe and whatever of its sub-systems unfolds along the arrow of time but it is not deterministic. The notion of progress is resulting from our psychic submission to the mechanics at play within the reason of capital that appear to us as all powerful and so we believe that reason, rationality and science will always drive us further down the lane of progress. Prygogyne remembers us that there is no such linearity. The selection of the future at the bifurcation point could as well push us back than drive us forward. In other words the arrow of time does not point toward a world that should always be better.
Extrapolating his discoveries from chemistry Prygogyne extends his conclusions to the working of societies. "This is the time of humanity, or the time of recollections, and not the time of human beings taken separately. The concept of time is dependent on a collective approach" (2). There is no place for doubt here. The historical impact of humanity on reality does not come from individual actions but from societal behavior.
Prygogyne then confirms this foundational truth with a philosophical statement about the nature of being human. "Finally, we can move beyond the classical conflict between being and becoming. Being is no longer the primordial element, just as becoming is no longer an illusion, the product of ignorance. Not at all. Today, we see that becoming, which is the expression of instability in the universe, is the primordial element.
... I believe that what we do today depends on our image of the future, rather than the future depending on what we do today. We build our equations by our actions. These equations, and the future they represent, are not written in nature. In other words, time becomes construction. Of course, we have some conditions that determine limits of the future but within these limits are many, many possibilities.
Therefore, since no deterministic prediction is likely to be valid, visions of the future--utopian visions--play a very important role in present conduct" (2).
Becoming means that our societal weighing on the balance of the selection, at a given bifurcation point, will eventually materialize in the future as the expression of our ideals or of our dreams. So the future is indeed not deterministic. But how are our societies possibly weighing on the balancing act giving birth to the future?
Let's come back to our present predicament. In our Late-Modern great transition our societies are atomized and as a result the individuals are at a loss and, all naturally, a general mood of resignation takes over the minds. Such a societal reality is conducive to the worse possible of outcomes for humanity.
But we are not obliged to submission. When we understand what is going on in the world submission appears indeed as an abdication of individual will. We know that individual will is powerless on the scale of the balancing act toward the future reality but individual will is not powerless on the scale of societal formation. Societies are indeed no more than the sum of their individual citizens and as such the individuals have the power to weigh on the scale of the balancing act toward the future being of their societies. But how does that work?
Our culture, in its largest sense, is formed by the interactions between the past (axioms of civilization + worldview) and the present (the interactions between the individuals that will eventually conclude with the selection of some meme mutations). Knowing, that the individuals have the power to weigh on the selection of meme mutations, we conclude that our actions are possibly very powerful indeed at forcing some specific meme mutations and their replication over the generations that possibly will conclude with their integration in our worldviews. Such an understanding makes sense of how individual behaviors impact societies and this should be viewed as a fundamental booster of individual optimism. Our individual actions have indeed the power to change our societies while our societies have the power to weigh on the realization of the future reality that is crystallized in the ideals and dreams contained in the worldview shared by all.
8. art is a tool for societies to generate higher levels of societal cohesion
Here follows a sketch in 10 points, from the lengthy exposition I gave in my earlier posts about history, on how art developed into what it is today:
1. the arts (modern concept) were initiated by tribal men of knowledge as instruments to build up the cohesion of the group and each art had a specific function (3).
2. in tribal societies the men of knowledge created new visuals trough paint, that were enhanced by music and dance, to transfer new ideas to the brains and minds of his fellow tribesmen (3).
3. art during animism was a production of the men of knowledge that was "vulgarized" through reproduction in popular crafts adorning daily use goods
4. the men of knowledge of empires tasked professional image makers to 'illustrate' their worldview. With the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of State such images adorned the walls and ceilings of churches and cathedrals that had been built massive and high so as to impress the idea, in the mind of visitors, that they were insignificant in comparison to the majesty and power of the church (4).
Before empires and religions the transmission of meaning through images was an answer to the natural demand for sense by the community. Power societies want to impose a given meaning to all. Such an imposed meaning is called propaganda. There is unmistakably a qualitative difference between - a natural demand for sense by the community - and the imposed meaning of propaganda (7).
5. Once a kingdom or an empire had an agreement with popular men of knowledge they standardized their knowledge and organized its diffusion through visual signs. Priests and monks were in charge of the knowledge behind the worldview and professional image makers were put in charge of illustrating that worldview for all to share. Image makers had no freedom whatsoever in term of content. They were ordered to give visual signs of the priests' narrative and their sole freedom of initiative was limited to the form of their works and their social status was furthermore among the lowest (5).
6. The artist, in Early-Modernity, as a commissioned agent of the new rich will gain a higher social status and the image of someone who is exceptional. That exceptionalism is what finally gave its 'aura' to the word art. The visual renderings of religious narratives were imposed upon the populations as being sacred. It was, and still is, a sacrilege to steal or desecrate a religious work of art. In the totalitarian context of Christianity's Inquisition art acquired for Westerners its character of absolute truth. It was the fear to be burned at the stake that gained respect for art. No other society has to my knowledge bestowed such a sacred and absolutist character on art productions.
7. the new rich proud owners of paintings that got their power clothes from Christianity were convinced that such power was transmitting to the inhabitants of their mansions and so they exclusively commissioned portraits of those in the mansions, landscapes around their mansions and stills on their tables .
The reasons why art was respected muted from the fear of Christian totalitarianism into the invisible emanation alleged to be discernible by individuals of supernatural sensibility. But I fear that this 'invisible emanation' presented as the talent proper of the artist was only a stratagem for the reason of capital, for, it is indeed the market that has been instrumental in the success of this transformational process. Works that had been respected through fear now were respected for their market value. The invisible emanation, at the hands of artists, had succeeded to gain the fame of gold and artworks were now exchangeable on the market. In other words the gods of economic rationality had succeeded to displace the gods of religion through a kind of alchemical manipulation(5).
8. The total freedom that has been unleashed by Modernism very rapidly weakened the content of artworks and it also gradually degraded the technical abilities of artists to the point that nowadays many artists' technique is totally nonexistent. This translated in an aesthetics of poverty. Not only is there not much left to share any longer, in term of knowledge content, but the little knowledge that is still being shared is now also poorly rendered leaving us often with the impression of an unmastered technique (5).
9. The differentiation between traditional men of knowledge and intellectuals is central to our comprehension of how knowledge fell from its pedestal to the floor of the market. Knowledge did not break at the contact with the floor but it surely lost its luster. There is unfortunately not much literature available on this particular subject which is a shame because it was the catalyst of the chaos to come. Science, philosophy and art, ended up being separated each in the corner of their own specialty and their separation weakened each of them to the point that they had to subvert themselves to the market in order to ensure their survival (6).
10. A widespread idea would have it that the new gods of economic rationality have transformed such works of art into merchandises whose 'artistic' value has the gift to transform itself into gold when such work is put on the market. But the market is no more than the right environment for this alchemical reaction. To be successful, an alchemical transformation needs indeed the combination of a source to be transformed, a right environment and a right reagent. The source to be transformed is the work of art, the environment is the market, so what could be our reagent? The answer is quite straightforward, the reagent we look for is the reason of capital that cries for permanent increase of the capital base through surplus generation. But the logic of capital is an abstract principle. It will thus guide its human practitioners to develop some sort of tools that will gradually impose the working of the alchemical reagent as being the way of nature. To put this bluntly the tools imposing the reagent as being the way of nature is a combination of PR techniques at the hands of the professional 'art world' that ascribes value to the works of its own choosing without any necessity for artistic considerations. The power of the technical elites definitely submitted to the political and economic elites and financialization finally transformed art into luxury commodities (6).
In my mind 7 facts are really determinant in the history of art:
The role of the men of knowledge and the role of artists could possibly fuse again in After-Modernity, as was the case under animism, while citizens find inspiration in the art of the men of knowledge to decorate their daily use tools.
9. were the turning points toward power and later toward the reason of capital worth the mass of tears they provoked?
Power was premised on the functional requirements imposed by large societies:
But with power societies:
Some are questioning if all this exercise at power societies was worth the price of its side-effects.
The same kinds of questions were being debated by the Chinese scholars (mandarins) during the Chinese Ming Dynasty: "Because the Neo-Confucian officials felt that not acknowledging and accepting limits would bring about adverse effects and unintended consequences, they felt that, rather than experimenting with the new, they were better off looking to past experience as a guide to the future.
The West wanted to see how far it could take things and was not afraid of enlarging the scale of technological operations and economic activity which the Chinese felt would make management more difficult and increase the chances of disorder as things started slipping out of control. " (8)
Ming China made a conscious choice to refuse navigating further down the path of Modernity while Western Europe followed its impulse at accumulating gold and luxuries. Only centuries later did a very small group of intellectuals start to understand the true nature of the monster that had been unleashed by greed.
"According to the 1992 book China: A New History, by John King Fairbank: [The] disparaging judgment [that Ming China almost purposely missed the boat of modern technological and economic development] comes out of the context of the late twentieth-century, when technology and growth have created innumerable disorders in all aspects of life all over the world without disclosing as yet the principles of order that may postpone the destruction of human civilization. In time the self-contained growth of Ming China with its comparable peace and well-being may be admired by historians, who may see a sort of success where today we see failure.
Will we soon be paying the price of being too smart for our own good? Is excessive ingenuity turning out to be less about increasing efficiency and more about hastening our self-destruction? " (8)
Five minutes before being dismantled and gobbled by an expansionist West communist China adopted "the mechanics at work within the reason of capital" as a self-defense mechanism. After achieving nominal GDP growth rates of over 10% a year during more than thirty years the Chinese have grown their economy as the biggest on earth by PPP measure and by nominal measure it will be the biggest within the next few years. The country has thus achieved, in extremis, a level of economic development sufficient to guarantee the safety of its sovereignty in the future. As I wrote at the start of this post "Entering its 4th decades of reforms at breakneck speed China is now reaching the point when it should be sufficiently strong economically to guarantee that there will be no break-down, no rupture, but continuity. What this implies is that Modernity will be integrated into the Chinese civilization and not the Chinese civilization integrated within Modernity. "
Was the Ming Dynasty's choice the right one? According to John King Fairbank historians may well see success where today we see failure. But, in finale, if China eventually survives as a nation it is because it embraced the economics of Modernity albeit very lately. So yes the Ming could well have been right in their time in term of the principle of consciousness but reality, in the end, was stronger than the principle. The same can be said about so many tribes that refused to adopt agriculture and a long time later became the victims of an industrialized agriculture that eats away their territory and their means of subsistence and the same goes for so many other species...
What I want to say is that societal principles are important to navigate the flux of time but in the end real old reality trumps everything including well thought out principles that forgot about the flow. Well thought out principles are right as long as they don't appear to be wrong. In other words nothing stays eternally the same. Reality is in constant transformation so human principles need always trying to flow on the changes operating in reality.
But the fact is that for all the triumphalism of Power and Modernity both have reached their threshold of inflicted pain that announces their coming break-down. My writing about "From Modernity to After-Modernity" is about that coming break-down but I had to make a long detour through history in order to gain an understanding of the mechanisms that brought us where we are today in Late-Modernity; mechanisms that announce the path towards what comes after Modernity.
I plan to slightly rework the content of the 20 posts written till now and to lay it out in book form mixed with graphic transformations of the panels of my painting "A grand visual narrative" (9). I'll then publish the result as a limited edition art book: "From Modernity to After-Modernity - book 1. Lessons from history". If you are interested to reserve a copy of the book send me a mail.
In Book 2 I'll concentrate on the theoretical aspects of societal evolution. I'll start to publish a weekly first draft of that "book 2 - Societal evolution" starting the 17th of September 2015.
I hope you'll be back to this blog in September and in the meantime I wish you a happy spring and summer.
1. in wikipedia
2. An interview of Illya Prygogyne in NPQ.
3. in "From Modernity to After-Modernity (5). Animism". See 2.3.
4. in " From Modernity to After-Modernity (7). The axioms of civilization. 2. Imperial stabilization. "
5. in "From Modernity to After-Modernity (9). The religious worldview"
6. in "From modernity to After-Modernity (11). Early-Modernity"
7. in "From Modernity to After-Modernity (18). 3. Late-Modernity (6)"
8. in "The answer to the Needham Question" by C. Ikehara in Asia Times
9. "A grand visual narrative"
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