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  • William Irwin Thompson that civilization is specifically a literate arrangement and that it has been undermined by both industrialization and planetarization, suggesting we are <already> in a post-civilizational phase.


An excerpt from Coming Into Being, by William Irwin Thompson:

"We need Marshall now because this new world of the media certainly does prove his old adage that "every media extension of man is an amputation." If we have cars we don't walk to the corner store anymore. If we have artificial intelligence extending the central nervous system into cyberspace networks, we all get dumber, and the best the World Wide Web can offer us is a color-degraded image of a postcard size Monet or a narrated tour through Elvis Presley's Graceland. McLuhan's quips and aphorisms were not simply wisecracks about the media, they were expressions of a theory of the evolution of conscious ness. At each stage in the cultural evolution of humanity, a new medium of communication comes forth, and that medium then effects a shift to a new form of polity. We begin with the origins of language in the African savanna, and we end up with the disintegration of literature on the Internet. For McLuhan, there were five evolutionary stages or quantum jumps:

1. Oral

2. Script

3. Alphabetic Print

4. Electronic.

If we restrict ourselves to the evidence of the endocranial casts that show more highly developed language articulation centers for archaic Homosapiens than for Homo erectus, then we can say that oral culture was roughly from 200,000 B.C.E. to 10,000 B.C.E., or basically the glacial epoch.

Then the system of signs on the walls of caves such as Lascaux began to become a script. This script developed from the Old Europe of 6000 B.C.E. to the Sumer of 3000 B.C.E. with the increase in the size of settlements, from Qatal Hiiytik in Anatolia to Uruk in Mesopotamia. Priestcraft and writing reinforced one another to give us city-states that sometimes federated and at other times conglomerated to expand into empires.

With the rise of middle class capitalism, with its "Gutenberg galaxy" of printed books and printed money, these empires became replaced by industrial nation-states in a new global formation called the world economy.

1. Culture (200,000 to 10,000 B.C.E.)

2. Society (10,000 to 3500 B.C.E.)

3. Civilization (3500 B.C.E. to 1500 C.E.)

4. Industrialization (1500 to 1945)

5. Planetization (1945 to present)

Each of these forms generated a unique polity.

1. Band

2. Tribe

3. City-State to empire

4. Nation-State

5. Noetic Polity

And each of these generated its characteristic form of cohesive association.

1. Dominance

2. Authority

3. Justice

4. Representation

5. Participation

The band was based on dominance. In Bonobo chimpanzee bands, we see a system of female dominance; in other primate groupings we see forms of male dominance, often but not always in the form of a single dominant male. In the second level of the tribe, the characteristic form of cohesive association is one of authority in the figure of a matriarch or a patriarch. When tribes begin to cluster within more cosmopolitan cities — and this transformation is described in the Old Testament in the social developments from Saul to David to Solomon — literacy becomes critical, and a group of palace high priests works to create a canonical sacred text that can hold the warring tribes together within a literate and urban civilization. As an expanding trading class grows in numbers through world commerce, and as literacy becomes democratized through printed books so that it is no longer the prerogative of a class of high priests associated with a palace, then pamphleteering, philosophy, argument, and discourse become the political instruments for the shift from medievalism to modernism. The landed aristocratic warrior and the priest lose power to the scientist and artist who become the avatars of the new world of the mind. After the Depression and the Second World War, this nationalistic culture of the grand philosophies of the state went up in the smoke of the battle of the great ideologies: Fascism, Communism, and Democracy. With the rise of the new^ postwar forms of electronic communication, philosophy and reasoned discourse could no longer hold together in the supersaturated solution of the global media.

Democracy was replaced by mediocracy; citizen was replaced by media subject. Vast electronic latifundia took control of sports, entertainment, politics, journalism, and education; in fact, all forms of culture simply became variants of the entertainment industry.

In the hands of a few giants of industry —Ted Turner, John Malone, Michael Eisner, or Bill Gates — new mergers, such as those of CNN and Time Warner or Disney and the American Broadcasting Company, created new global streams of techno swill in which the believing subject was fed like cattle in feedlots. Neither the scientist, the philosopher, nor the artist can counter this huge social transformation. The scientist is dependent on the funding systems of late capitalism for his or her costly research, and the solitary artist, in order to communicate with this electronic society, must become a celebrity — a personality managed by a publicist, a public figure constrained to turn ideas into sound bites and sell them to the public on talk shows —and this packaging automatically makes him or her an expression of the dominant culture. As McLuhan said, "The medium is the message."

But it is a paradox of complex dynamical systems that every shift to a higher level of organization also energizes the louver level to return in compressed and novel variations of the older form.

In the hominid band, the system of association is based on dominance. Today, this form of association has returned as a nativistic reaction to the cultural entropy ofthe megalopolis and has become the teenage gang. In society, the form of human association is the tribe and is based on authority, matristic or patriarchal. This form of association also has its nativistic return today in the form of a cult or sect headed by a guru or mediumistic prophet. Civilization represents an effort through written laws, literature, and philosophy to achieve a balance between the conflicting powers of military dominance and religious authority through the form of a system of justice for the city-state. Plato's Republic and Sophocles are cultural documents that capture the conflict of this cultural shift from society to civilization. The nativistic return of literate civilization within our electronic post-civilization is expressed in the miniaturized city-state of the university surrounded by the cultural entropic zone of the ghetto. Think of Columbia and the University of Chicago. Within these fortresses of higher learning, academics such as Allan Bloom speak out as nativistic Plato's. In national politics, the system of association is based on representation, but in the informational overload of the electronic media, this system breaks down and can no longer be based on pamphleteering, philosophical books, and reasoned discourse. It becomes a crossing of entertainment."