10. OUR TIMES, GOOD TIMES AND TIMES TO COME
The Romantic poets were the first to recognize the fifth epoch’s moral crisis. They saw it rooted in the transforming power of the Industrial Revolution. William Blake was the toughest minded of them. He etched many of his poems in acid on copper plate. In the Four Zoas Blake wrote,
And all the Arts of Life they chang’d into the Arts of Death in Albion.
The hour-glass contemn’d because its simple workmanship
Was like the workmanship of the plowman, & the water-wheel
That raises water into cisterns, broken & burn’d with fire
Because its workmanship was like the workmanship of the shepherd;
And in their stead, intricate wheels invented, wheel without wheel,
To perplex youth in their outgoings & to bind to labours in Albion
Of day & night the myriads of eternity: that they may grind
And polish brass & iron hour after hour, laborious task,
Kept ignorant of its use; that they might spend the days of wisdom
In sorrowful drudgery to obtain a scanty pittance of bread,
In ignorance to view a small portion & think that All,
And call it Demonstration, blind to all the simple rules of life. 1
The Industrial Revolution from its start, and in its extension in the Information Revolution, has favored outwardness over inwardness. It trains people in exteroceptive sensation, emphasizing the distance senses of sight and hearing. It teaches us to rely on outward measures of progress. The balance between inward and outward sensation tells us how we fit into the world. It gives us crucial information about whether we are alone or in company, intensely involved with another person or only casually in touch, and all shades inbetween. It tells us whether time goes slow or fast, whether space is open or closed, opportunities nearby or far away, hope internally generated or dependent on outside sources, truth universal or consensual. It supports our notions of whether dreamtime is real or illusory, whether the dead are present or absent in our daily affairs, whether causation is material or spiritual or both simultaneously. Kierkegaard warned us that a preponderance of outwardness drains the self of meaning.
“On account of our vastly increased knowledge, men had forgotten what it means to exist, and what inwardness signifies…it does not take a parade of millions, or of generations of men; it does not take human-ity in the lump, any more than the police arrest humanity at large. The ethical is concerned with particular human beings, and with each and every one of them by himself.”2
The outward orientation, with its narrow focus on utility, strengthens the technical mind at the expense of the ethical mind – the ethical mind Kierkegaard found only in inwardness. Outwardness situates us in a linear, expansive, accelerating environment whose major turns are determined by material, scientific and technological changes. Quick turnaround time, rapid job turnover, on-demand inventory management, worldwide instant credit approvals, faster business exchanges, electronic voting, quicker hand-eye coordination, special effects and rapid cutting in the entertainment media, shape the current zeitgeist. Market share has to increase, markets have to expand, and productivity has to improve. Everything has to “grow or die”. A steady state suggests stagnation, a kind of mitochondrial decline, a sign of energy death. Speed is the happy essence of things, the savor of life. Corporate public relations firms reframe the maddening pace as a desirable characteristic.
By contrast, the ethical mind is slow in its ponderings. It grows stronger with patient practice. It needs time to consider. Rushing impedes it. The ethical mind supports that part of the non-material culture concerned with making choices. Its inwardness exposes the character of conscience to solitary reflection. It upholds the cultural standards for shame and guilt. It shows the way dream states are valued, the roles contemplation and meditation play in decision-making. It can be discerned in how we make and keep promises, and how we cope with pleasure and pain. It maintains beliefs about the connection of the soul to the body, including its fate after death.
Our estrangement intensifies with the pace of technical progress. The combined effects of industrial, electronic, informational and media advances turn times and seasons upside down. Work days, holidays, transportation schedules, shopping hours, professional, legal and financial hours dominate the calendar. All these arbitrary schedules reconceived and digitized, timed by TV programs, smoothed by timed-release medications, authorized by commercially dictated shopping seasons, tracked by the interlinked stock markets of the world, impose new rhythms and new kinds of turbulence on us and in us. In many instances, the events of our lives turn from full off to full on instantaneously. Time doesn’t flow.
The stress/aggression thresholds, whose set points were retarded during the third expansive epoch and advanced in the fourth, have been thrown into overdrive in the fifth. Aggressivity has become a central pillar of business strategy. Scientific research, art and entertainment show it. Who can dispute that ambition linked to aggressive energy directed rationally has improved the human prospect? However, who would be willing to argue from where we sit now that modern science and technology in the hands of industry has been good for nature?
Jerry Mander grappled with these issues in Four Arguments Against Television. He put his finger on the trance-inducing characteristics of the flicker rate on TV screens. And television just touches one aspect of the syndrome. The broader situation is that in trying to adjust to the digitized jitter of events, we keep trying to redefine what constitutes an interruption. Do the millisecond gaps in digital music recordings interrupt the flow? Do we notice them or not? Do the down-to-the-second starts and endings of TV programs bend our expectations to fit the hour?
We leap over time zones. Nothing and everything become interruptions. The sensory challenges bring on neural changes that reset the conditions under which we feel stress, sometimes torpifying us, sometimes setting us on hair-triggers.
My fear is that unless we can reduce the hold of vigilant outwardness, we will become permanently glued to the sensory surface of a superficially fascinating civilization lacking in depth. We will use ourselves up dealing with intrusive cultural stimulation, much of it subliminal. Mander expanded his analysis of our dilemma in The Absence of the Sacred. He wrote,
“Our entire society has begun to suffer the madness of the astronaut; uprooted, floating in space, encased in our metal worlds, with automated systems neatly at hand, communicating mainly with machines, following machine logic, disconnected from the earth and all organic reality, without contact with a multidimensional, biologically diverse world and with the nuances of world views entirely unlike our own, unable to view ourselves from another perspective, we are alienated to the nth degree.”3
The human body and the whole biosphere have been increasingly subjected to fundamental frequency, amplitude and phase resettings coming from the industrialization of the sensory surround by the operations of the technical mind. These changes are occurring on a scale not seen since the Agricultural Revolution, but much faster now, and everywhere at once, because our political systems, economies, transportation and communications networks are linked, and our needs and shared crises are shaking all of us up. Right now, our labor/capital/ entrepreneurial choices, distorted by the fundamental biological rhythm resetting problems whipping around us, are precipitating dangerous planetary imbalances.
These imbalances are bringing the transformational crisis of the fifth epoch to a head. From the deep places where the body meets history, new symptoms of distress and fresh opportunities are rising. They pull us back and forth between the technical and the ethical mindsets. We use the technical mind to devise ways to get what we want. But what we want, what we choose to value comes from the ethical mind.
To play variations on the theme:
o The technical mind thinks in terms of ways and means, the ethical mind thinks in terms of hopes, values and responsibilities. The technical mind builds the vehicle that gets us where we are going, the ethical mind decides where we want to go and what to do when we arrive.
o The technical mind asks the question “will it work?” and defines “work” in many ways: personal pleasure, power, recognition, psychic gain, material benefit, enhanced per-sonal safety, strengthened family and community ties, public service, and more. But its work ethic also applies to vengeance, destruction, torture and war.
o As a habit of thought, it lists, categorizes, analyzes, plans, builds, pulls apart, theorizes, tests, improves, accumulates data, organizes facts into categories and makes decisions. The ethical mind, on the other hand, tends not to work in a vast variety of brilliant ways. Instead, it looks at our plans, and it worries whether we are making the best choices regarding the things we care about most.
o Where the technical mind is built for speed, and wants to go faster, the ethical mind resists acceleration. Thoreau saw the contrast in the railroad running through Concord. “It moves too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a tele-graph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.”4
o Confucius, in the China of 500 B.C., told his students “The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell. The superior man loves his soul; the inferior man loves his property. The superior man always remembers how he was punished for his mistakes; the inferior man always remembers what presents he got.” In a more subtle observation, he added, “The superior man is easy to serve, but difficult to please, for he can be pleased by what is right, and he uses men according to their individual abilities. The inferior man is difficult to serve, but easy to please, for you can please him (by catering to his weaknesses) without necessarily being right, and when he comes to using men he demands perfection.”5
The hard, frequent and abrupt swings between our technical problems and opportunities and our ethical fears and hopes are wearing us down. We may be entering a culture-wide version of the exhaustion stage of Hans Selye‘s General Adaptation Syndrome (see # 148).
To use a medical analogy, we are suffering from an essential tremor in our grip on life. We are afflicted with spasmodic movements between crass outwardness and inept inwardness in the frequency bands I identified earlier. These relentless swings challenge our ethical and technical ideations in ways I shall soon explain. So far, we have only recognized the chronobiological face of these problems in a coarse-grained way: as relatively trivial circadian clock disorders coming from shift work and jet lag. But far more serious and insidious problems are occurring in other frequency ranges. They are particularly troubling in the fast ultradian bands on which our nervous systems run, where they interfere with mirror neuron functioning and degrade our capacities for human empathy in a spectrum of disorders extending from atomic individualism to full-blown autism (I explain this below in # 203-204.)
I frame the distinctive character of the modern dilemma this way: The world created by the triumphs of the technical mind obstructs love and wisdom by skewing the alternations between inwardness and outwardness that we need to travel the legs of approach/separation and withdrawal/return to our turning points unimpeded.
In the wisdom dynamic, our culture admires the heroic qualities of the return leg while disparaging withdrawal. We support the seeker when he comes back, not when he goes away. We forget that the struggle in the depths of withdrawal shows the real nobility of the human aspiration for truth much more clearly than does the socially acceptable successful return.
In love too we are biased by outwardness. By sentimentalizing intimacy, we lose the dynamic reality of relationships as events in process. We favor continuous false approach over alternating approach and separation. And this makes us identify attachment with relationship as such, as if a relationship depended on a fixed emotional distance between the partners. Moreover, some of us, through an overabundance of saccharine sentimentality, unwittingly tune out empathy and sympathy. We are as likely to feel the same pity for a forlorn puppy we do for a homeless person. And we don’t have to act on either. It’s enough to savor the feeling.
Though we can remake the world through the power of outwardness, we can only transform ourselves through inwardness. Only in inwardness do the crucibles of metabolic change open to volitional shaping in turning point dramas. On this shaping power we rely for the aptness of our feelings, drives, motivations and ideations. Only in freedom, in our fluid form, can we recast ourselves, reach out and act in new ways.
Arnold Toynbee insisted, correctly I believe, that in our times the technical and ethical mindsets had moved decisively into opposition. The battle went on everywhere, inside our offices, schools, courts, deliberative bodies, businesses and laboratories, in our beds, in our marriages, with our children, and inside our heads. Back and forth we bounce between the technical and ethical minds. “… the two incompatible states of mind and standards of conduct are to be seen today, side by side, not merely in the same world, but sometimes in the same country and even in the same soul.”6 It was undermining our civilization: “…Western man’s technological control over non-human nature—his stupendous progress in ‘know-how… has created enormous problems that have brought our civilization to its ‘time of troubles’.”7
According to him, our propensities for creation and destruction had not changed. We don’t build up and tear down with new motivations, we just do it better (or worse) because science and technology, the boldest gifts of the technical mind, have handed us a ferocious power to pursue our inclinations. This power, he noted, is “just what gave our fathers the confidence to delude themselves into imagining that, for them, history was comfortably over.” But they were wrong. Instead by “these triumphs of clockwork the Western middle class has… set Juggernaut’s car rolling on again with a vengeance.”