William Irwin Thompson on the Four Cultural Ecologies of the West

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= In his book Coming Into Being, William Irwin Thompson describes cultural ecologies as the geo-historical backgrounds to forms of culture and consciousness that are adaptations to it.

He distinguishes (based on my recollection, needs to be verified:

  • sylvan: living in the forest as proto-hominids
  • savannah: hominization takes place
  • glacial: life in the cavers, symbolization and art forms
  • riverine: start of the civilizational process in the rival deltas of Mesopotamia, Egypt and China
  • trans-oceanic: western-led industrialization takes place connecting the continents over the Atlantic
  • planetarization to due electronic media, coinciding wit shift towards the Pacific

The following excerpts focuses on the West:

(note that, at the time of writing, Asia was dominated by the Russian Soviet state and Maoist China)

For every cultural ecology epoch, Thompson distinguishes:

  • a formative cultural artefact or text, which announces the ecology
  • a dominant text reflecting the full advent of the system
  • a climactic text or artefact reflecting its full flowering, but also indicates it is ready to be replaced (Dante's Divine Comedia, which towers as an achievement of medieval art, thus preparing the Renaissance)


William Irwin Thompson:

"The historical movement from one cultural ecology to another can be centuries long, as in the movement from Mesopotamian to classical to medieval; or it can be the journey of a lifetime, as in Bateson's movement from England to California; or it can become a metanoia in which the world is experienced by the individual in an instant. To appreciate the movement out of the old cultural ecology into the new one, consider the experience of the astronaut Russell Schweickart, the first man to float in space without a vehicle to frame his perceptions. Because of a malfunction with his camera, Schweickart had a moment to be and not to do; in that instant he dropped the linear perspective of the box of his camera to Comprehend the earth with his whole body and soul. In his remarks at Lindisfarne, Southampton, in 1974, Schweickart described the experience in the following way:

You look down there and you can't imagine bow many borders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, And you don't even see them, There you are-hundreds of people in the Mideast killing each other over some imaginary line that you can't see-and from where you see it, the thing is a whole, and it's so beautiful. You wish you could take one in each hand, one from each side in the various conflicts, and say, "Look! Look at that! What's important?"

The world of industrial man is a world of objects separated by lines: mansions at one end, dioxin dumps at the other. But in the Pacific-Aerospace cultural ecology, the world is known to be .1 field of interpenetrating presences, and in the world of space one is constrained to be on more intimate terms with one's waste. This is a knowledge that is brought back to earth, for aerospace technologies lead directly to new understandings of ecology. With satellites one sees the life of rivers and seas; with space capsules and shuttles one learns the placing of exhalation and excretion. Ideologies are excretions of the mind; they are the exhausted remains of once living ideas. They, too, must be put safely to the side as toxic wastes that can kill if they are inappropriately taken in as life-giving food. For Rusty Schweickart, looking down on the violent Middle East, the movement into space became 2 shift from the ideologies of " us and them" to the ecology of consciousness in which opposites are understood in an involvement of "each in all." The furthest development of industrial technology and its extension into space brings about a rather classic enantiodromia in which technology triggers a mystical change in consciousness in which an object becomes a presence, but it also brings about a cultural condition in which the spiritual unconscious, or Gaia, is precipitated into consciousness.

As Bateson has shown, most of Mind is, and must be by definition, inaccessible to consciousness, 10 but bow we designate the unconscious is part of the history of consciousness, part of that image in the rear-view mirror that tells us where we have been. Looking back over the twentieth century, we can now see that the uncovering of the unconscious has moved through four stages. First came the uncovering of the instinctive unconscious with Freud; this was essentially a revelation of eros and thanatos in the basic animal life. Then came the uncovering of the psychic unconscious, the collective unconscious, through the work of Jung. This was a revelation of the archetypes of the emotional life of the soul. Then came the uncovering of the intellectual unconscious, the "positive unconscious" in the work of LeviStrauss and Foucault. For the structural anthropologist, mythologies and the sexual life of preliterate humanity expressed patterns that were invisible to the savage but perceived by the ethnologist. For the cultural historian of civilization, like Foucault, the episterne of an age was the hidden structure of the mind, the intellectual unconscious, that held economics, linguistics, and art into a relationship not seen by the people of their own era. Bateson's analysis of the ecology of Mind is the transition from the uncovering of the intellectual unconscious to the precipitation of the spiritual unconscious. This revelation takes two forms: first, the unconscious becomes experienced as the body not identified with and hitherto seen as "the other," namely, the environment; and second, the environmentally compressed social consciousness integrates from the threat of crisis to precipitate, not a literate civilization, but a collective consciousness. Another word for revelation is apocalypse, but this mythic narrative of the end of the world should not be taken literally in a paranoid fashion, and should be recognized as expressing not annihilation but the ending of a single world.

Catastrophe literally means "turning over." When one turns over compost with a shovel, one is creating a catastrophe for the anaerobic bacteria in the pile. Wars can be the turning over of civilizations, but for humans with a more ecological awareness, the transition from civilization to planetary culture could be more subtle, unimaginable, and so gradual that, though individuals in various ages intuit the transition and express it in art and paranoid utterance, the transition itself, the turning over, does not take place in time until it is finished. Perhaps, the transition from Civilization to planetary culture is like the transition from Paleolithic to Neolithic, and the artists who sensed the end of that era said farewell to it in Lascaux and Altamira. For the artist, nothing is the same; for the common man, nothing has changed, Perhaps this is what Yeats meant when he said, "All life is waiting for an event that never happens."

An yet something happened to Rusty Schweickart, and something happened to our world when we saw it from space. Perhaps there is a logarithmic progression to the rate of Change, and what a few intuit at the time of Hieronymus Bosch becomes more widely seen as the discontinuity between the rate of change and the rate of adaptation becomes more dramatic. Certainly with the rapid death of the forests and vineyards in Europe, and with overpopulated Mexico about to become to the United States in 1987 what Ireland was to England in 1845, the world does seem to be a place where culture and ecology are disastrously maladapted to one another.

The samsaric creatures who distort the process of adaptation with conscious purpose do not seem to know what they are doing. When the West Germans created the "economic miracle," they did not know that they were killing the forests. When the city fathers of Los Angeles connived with General Motors to eliminate the Pacific Electric public train system in order to build the freeways, they thought they were making something called "progress." This mistake seems to be as old as civilization itself, for in ancient Uruk, Gilgamesh and Enkidu thought that the right way to go out and make a name for themselves was to slay the spirit of the forest. Civilized humanity will continue to Make progress in this way, whether it makes DDT, or plutonium, or thalidomide, or dioxin, or a genetically engineered bacterium with which to spray fruit trees in order to retard the damage to agribusiness from frost.

Conscious purpose derives from conscious identity. As this Western industrial civilization of ours reaches its grand climactic finale, it is timely for us to look back and ask ourselves: Who is this we? What is this story we keep telling ourselves about Western science, and Western technology, and Western humanistic values?

This narrative of identity in which we take our being marks time with various monuments and builds its pantheons to celebrate the nation's great, but if we move OUT eyes up from the level of the streets of Paris or London, we do not see people or their monuments any longer. The samsaric creatures who thought that they were separate from nature when they dug wells and chopped down trees do not show up in the picture, except at the end of the story as the changing colors of a dying Mediterranean. As we look down on the stage for their story, we see a mold called civilization spread from river to sea to ocean. We do not see tribes, peoples, or nations, but we do see four distinct ecologies affected by human culture; so, that is why I prefer to call these configurations "cultural ecologies" and look back at the narrative of "Western civilization" to see it as a cumulative movement through four stages.

The first cultural ecology of the West was the Riverine, that lattice of city-states spread between the Tigris and the Euphrates in the fourth millennium B.C. This historic transformation of Neolithic villages and towns into cities was not simply an expression of an increase in population, but a reorganization of the structure of society, This systematic transformation involved new forms of communication in the appearance of writing, new forms of technology in the appearance of plows and irrigation works, and new institutions in the forms of standing armies and elevated temples. We now look back in identification with this complex and call it "civilization" to see ourselves in it.

Neolithic gathering and gardening were attuned to local conditions and limits. There were no great irrigation systems to transform the marshes of gatherers into the fields of farmers. Civilization, by contrast, was an extensive alteration of the landscape, and the dikes and canals of the irrigation works contributed greatly to the salinization of the soil.

The salinization of the soil is civilization's first form Of pollution, and it tells us right at the start something very important about the Structural organization of civilization: namely, that pollution is not a random noise or static that clings to the transmission of the signal as consciousness passes through the medium of nature, but, rather, it is itself a communication, albeit an unconscious one. It is not random, but a systematic description of the form of the disruption; it is like a shadow that describes the form of an object's intrusion into the light. It is not noise precisely because it is a signal; but because it is not recognized to be information, it cannot be classed as an ordinary signal. So, let us say that it is dissonance rather than noise, for dissonance derives from cultural conventions of tuning. Dissonance can contribute to background noise as long as it remains unconscious and unrecognized, but if the dissonance becomes interesting enough to attract awareness, and thus is pulled out of the unconscious into the creative play of mind, then dissonance becomes recognized as a signal.

Pollution, then, like a neurotic symptom, is a form of communication. To ignore the symptom, to thrust it to the side of awareness and push it back into the collective unconscious, is to perform the same action that created the pollution, the dissonance, the neurotic symptom, in the first place. The end result of ignoring the communication is to stimulate it to the point that the dissonance becomes so loud that it drowns out all other signals. Ultimately, the ignored and unconscious precipitates itself as the ultimate shadow of civilization, annihilation. This is another way of expressing what I have noted before: "If you do not create your destiny, you will have your fate inflicted upon you." The creation of destiny, then, depends on maintaining a more permeable membrane between noise and information, unconscious and conscious, nature and culture.

Civilization, however, is not surrounded by a light, permeable membrane, but a wall, and the intensification of consciousness in writing only contributes to the ignored accumulations of the unconscious. The S21inization of the soil was not seen or beard. A local technology, defined by the City's limits, Created a problem area larger than its political area of control. And so the very attempt at control through irrigation only created a larger area of the uncontrollable. It would seem that nature has its own homoestatic mechanisms Of Order that use disorder, and any cultural attempt to control an area rationally only seems to generate a shadow that has the ability to eat the form until it disappears in the light. We call nature wild with good reason, but the fascinating aspect of the cultural patterning of urban civilization is that the problem or crisis, the dissonance, can itself be read as the signal of emergence of the next level of historical order.

It can, that is, be read as a signal by the historian, because what is unconscious for the society is information for the historian precisely because he or she is not in its time. So it is that one culture's noise and dissonance can be the succeeding culture's information.

The Mediterranean cultural-ecology followed the Riverine. In the expansion of city-state to empire, political areas strained to become coextensive with their resource areas, if not their ecosystems. In urban civilization a center-periphery dynamic was established in which power was at the center with the literate elite, but the resources were at the periphery with the illiterate provincials, And so soil loss at the center could be offset by importing foodstuffs and materials from the periphery. But as the extension of empire from river to sea took place, deforestation appeared as the price for creating large fleets.

Soil loss can be seen to be a local problem remedied by importing food, but deforestation is not simply the removal of an object; it results in an alteration of the climate over a large area. But here again we see the pattern that the appearance of a crisis can be read, not simply as noise picked up by the signal in transmission through a medium, but as the signal of emergence of the next level of historical order. Removal of a forest creates an atmospheric disturbance. And here again we see that as the area of conscious control is extended, the area of unconscious unmanageability also expands. The human crisis comes as the political area and the ecosystem are not coextensive.

(By definition, conscious purpose and the larger "ecology of Mind" can never be congruent.) Nature has built-in defenses against rationalization, because total management would shut down spontaneity, novelty, and change; therefore the defense is a tissue of contradictions. Disorder is homeostatic; the capacity for innovation is held through forms

of maintenance that involve noise, randomness, and catastrophes used as stochastic mechanisms. The shape of nature is a form for which we have no topological mapping. It is a form of opposites: order and disorder, steady state and catastrophe, pattern and randomness, continuity and innovation. The ultimate enantiomorphic polity is Gaia herself.

The third cultural ecology is oceanic, specifically Atlantic. We know this formation under the mote familiar designation of industrial civilization. The technology is one of steam and internal combustion, and this gaseous, thermodynamic activity is poetically appropriate, for the environmental disturbance is not merely one of soil loss or local deforestation, but of global atmospheric change. These are the changes that we, who come at the end of industrial civilization, can see in the forms of acid rain and the Greenhouse Effect. Once again, the political area is not coextensive with the ecosystem, though the British certainly strained to make it so in the nineteenth century; and, once again, we can see that the crisis indicates the emergence of the next level of historical order, for the atmospheric damage indicates a movement in cultural activity from the oceanic to the planetary.

The fourth cultural ecology is space; its human foundation, however, is the Pacific Basin. In the cultural relationships between Japan and California, one can observe the technological shift from matter to information, from the old European civilization spread out from London and Paris to New York, to the new Pacific Basin civilization spread out from Los Angeles and Tokyo to Sydney.

Although this new culture is focused on the Pacific Basin, the global quality of the fourth cultural ecology is expressed in the fact that there is not simply one crisis, but an accumulation of all the preceding crises. We encounter salinization and soil loss in the United States from the use of centerpivot irrigation and the mining of fossil water. We encounter sudden and massive deforestation in Latin America and Indonesia, and when these are added to atmospheric changes from industrial pollution, we encounter not simply localized disturbances, but alterations of global weather, patterns. And as the forests die or are cut down, this loss of soil and water table accelerates the rate of change in weather patterns. Whether all of these will result in the advent of a new ice age or the melting of the ice caps and the flooding of coastal cities such as New York, or both in succession, is now being debated by scientists.

When we look back over the pattern of development from Riverine to Mediterranean to Atlantic to Pacific-Aerospace, we can see that Western civilization is correct in its identification with the urban revolution of the fourth millennium B. C., for the story is our story, and not one of the environmental problems of civilization has been "solved since 3500 B.C. The problems were simply deferred by moving into a new cultural ecology. But now we have come full circle, and all the problems are accumulating in what can only be described as the climax of civilization itself.

The human response to this climactic crisis has been Janus-beaded; one face looks for a way out through an imagination of the past, the other through an imagination of the future. The celebrators of bunting and gathering as an logically balanced culture, such as the poet Cary Snyder, tend to see civilization as a pathology. The celebrators of technology, Stich as the physicist Gerard O'Neill, see nature as the wrong vehicle for culture and have proposed space colonies as the proper medium in which technology can grow independent of the constraints of an earthly ecology, Both reactions to the present are literally reactionary. Hunters and gatherers are not innocent, and the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna can be blamed on their techniques of using prairie fires and stampedes to eliminate whole species in their bunts. Civilization, if it is pathological, simply makes the pathology of human culture mote visible. The task is not to eliminate humanity in a romantic celebration of nature, or to eliminate nature in a romantic celebration of technology, but to understand the enantiomorphic dynamism of that oxymoron human nature. The planetary ecological crisis allows us to see for the first time the nature of a planetary ecology. If we can begin to understand the pattern that connects noise to innovation, catastrophe to selection, nature to culture, we have the possibility of becoming alive in vitally more imaginative ways than in the male-bonded clubbiness of the bunting camp or the space colony.

From the beginning of civilization there have been wild slippages in nature that have always kept it out of the control of culture. Heisenberg's Indeterminacy Principle is not simply a narrative limited to quantum mechanics; it is a narrative of the limits of the mappings of observation: if you can fix a society's location, you cannot fix its ecological momentum. Bateson saw the discrepancy between conscious purpose and the larger pathways outside the body in the ecology of Mind as a form of disharmony that resulted in Crises of maladaptation; but perhaps the relationship is more basic than that, more a question of ontology than epistemology. Perhaps knowing can never become identical with being, or perhaps it can only with the achievement of Buddhist Enlightenment.

The Christian poet Robert Browning said that "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, else what's a heaven for?" Since we have no historical evidence of the presence of Enlightened societies, for even the Taoist monks used charcoal to make the ink with which they made their celebrated paintings of nature, we can assume that the slippage of nature out of humanity's grasp has to do with a fundamental slippage of being from knowing. Like a shadow that does not permit us to jump over it, but moves with us to maintain its proper distance, pollution is nature's answer to culture. When we have learned to recycle pollution into potent information, we will have passed over completely into the new cultural ecology.

Although nature has her built-in protections against the schemes of total control that would, in effect, be totalitarian, human beings cannot refrain from the impulse to extend their control. Each time that Western civilization did expand, it struggled to internalize the preceding cultural ecology, and it strained its reach to extend its grasp in a political control up to the margins of the new cultural ecology. Mediterranean culture internalized the Riverine, and Roman society strained to turn the Mediterranean area into an empire. The English internalized the Mediterranean (that is what Nelson's Column celebrates) and strained to turn their new oceanic cultural ecology into the British Empire,

Compelling as the idea of empire May be for some people, in the words of Bishop Berkeley's rejection of scientific materialism, "We Irish think otherwise." The idea of empire is a poor abstraction of a living process; it is a crude oversimplification of an ecology, and perhaps this is why life always defeats empire in time. The historian of the modem world-system, Immanuel Wallerstein, sees the expansion of the West as an ambivalence, even an oscillation, in the application of two forms Of Political activity. One he characterizes as that of a world empire, the other that of a world economy. The current struggles between the United States of America and the Soviet Union Can be seen, therefore, to be not so much a conflict between capitalism and communism (the contents of their structures), but between a modernizing and deracinating world economy that puts McDonald's hamburgers in Paris and Disneyland in Tokyo, and a traditional and very conservative form of world empire that seeks to define the periphery in terms of the single center of Moscow.

One can therefore say that an empire is an abstraction of an ecosystem, that an economy is a shadow form of an ecology, and that what human beings are now struggling to create is a healthier cultural ecology in which pollution, noise, and dissonance are understood."


Summary of the Phases (with tables)

"If we were simply shifting the center of world-power from one world-city to another, "history" would be the same old story of rise and fall; however, because we are moving out of one cultural-ecology into another, history is unpredictable, but not unimaginable. The larger patterns of historical development can often help us to see what is forming seemingly local events, much in the same way that geology can help us to see what forces formed our local hills and streams; but one of the more interesting patterns of the perception of historical development is to notice the way in which different narratives become isomorphic. The four cultural ecologies that I have chosen line up in an interesting way with the typologies of both Marx and McLuhan. One chose systems Of production and distribution, the other systems of communication; but the shift from one form to another Was also synchronous with a reorganization of cultural ecologies, as we can see below:

Cultural Ecology // Economy // Communication System

Riverine // Asiatic // Script

Mediterranean // Feudal // Alphabetic

Atlantic // Capitalistic // Print

Pacific-Space // Socialistic // Electronic

Because Marx was writing in the middle of tile Industrial Revolution, he overemphasized technology and the means of production, for, in large measure, he was also reacting to what be felt was the excessive idealism of the Hegelian school. Marx bad no way of anticipating the shift from hardware to software, and be had little chance to see that capitalism's emphasis on innovation would carry it from one culture into another and that Russia's revolution would lock its grip onto the industrial mentality. McLuban had the advantage of coming right in the middle of the shift from print to electronics, and he had the advantage of the perspective that comes from sitting to the side of history. Marx was in the center of the industrial mentality in London; McLuban, however, was not in Los Angeles, but Toronto, and Toronto, like a fly in amber, is a beautiful fossil of the Scot's vision of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. McLuhan disliked change and innovation, but in his fascination with the culture he studied, he spoke for the ambivalence of most Ontarians. Nevertheless, McLuban saw what most Americans could not, and that was themselves. His analyses of the sixties make even more sense in the eighties.

As we consider the pattern that connects Marx's means of production to McLuhan's system of communication, we can notice that each shift from one to the other tended to introduce a new form of polity.

Cultural Ecology // Polity

Riverine // City-state

Mediterranean // Empire

Atlantic // Industrial nation-state

Pacific-Space // Enantiomorphic?

The kind of polity that is emerging in our epoch is, of course, anybody's guess. The Russians would like to see world communism with Lenin as its prophet and Moscow as its Mecca. The Americans would like to see a global marketplace with minimal national interference in the way of environmental protection or tariffs. I hope that we will have neither a Russian not an American world-state, but that through the cultural integrations brought on by both the electronic technologies and the ecologies of Mind, we will be able to come up with something more like a planetary cultural ecology in which difference is vital as the information that spells transformation.

Because the eighteenth-century Industrial Revolution turned technology into a form of idolatry, most contemporary political scientists tend to see only technology and economics as expressions of political reality. Pure science, art, and a spirituality that is not religiously institutional are not taken seriously. Fortunately, the French have made up for the Comtian positivism that they foisted on the world, for now cultural historians such as Foucault and Serres look beyond technology for the implicit configuration, the syntax of thought, that is common to the narratives of myth and science. Now, finally, postindustrial humanity is beginning to realize that in spite of Levi-Strauss, we never can have a science of myth (since our being is always more than our knowing) but that we will always have changing myths of science.

Foucault introduced the concept of episteme as the hidden system of coherence in the positive unconscious of an era. Michel Serres has looked at the origins of geometry and noticed the mythic patterns that unite literature and science. Following these insights, and relating them to my own previous discussions of the narratives common to myth and science, I would like to propose a further elaboration of the fourfold typology of cultural ecologies to consider: (1) the dominant form of mathematical articulation, (2) the climactic literary masterpiece, and (3) the dominant mode of religious experience.

Let us begin with the forms of mathematical articulation. Because I am mathematically illiterate, I see patterns precisely because I am outside the content. Like an illiterate peasant who yet has some skill in painting complex patterns on pottery, and who, when he comes upon Sanskrit, Chinese, Arabic, or Greek for the first time, sees them as pat

terns of identity, I look at mathematics as a cultural description. In each of the four cultural ecologies, the processes that have absorbed attention have been quite distinct. It is definitely not the case that there is one universal human nature with four different cultural styles of asking the same questions about the eternal verities. The pattern I see is the following:

Cultural Ecology // Mathematical Mode

Riverine // Enumeration

Mediterranean // Geometrizing

Atlantic // Notations of movement, dynamics

Pacific-Space // Catastrophe theory-topology


How the Evolution of Mathematics Parallels Civilizational History

William Irwin Thompson:

"The beginning of mathematics, according to Whitehead, was in the recognition of set and periodicity. The first hunter who observed that three fish and three bears were both instances of threeness took the first step toward the observation of periodicity. Elsewhere I have argued at greater length that the first observations of periodicity had to have been involved with the menstrual cycle and that the primordial mathematician was probably not a hunter, but a gatherer. The Neolithic stick of computation, christened le haton de commandement by the Abbe Breuil, was probably no such male thing at all, but rather a midwife's tally stick for the lunar calender of "women's mysteries." 17 Menstruation and mensuration are related, and the lunar cosmologies that Alexander Thom has shown to be expressed in the megalithic stone circles of Britain speak of a cosmology that is not military, masculine, and Bronze Age.

The observation of periodicity in Woman and moon establishes a mentality that becomes developed in the Paleolithic systems of knowledge in midwifery and some form of lunar astrology. But enumeration is not simply counting; it is relating. Therefore the recital of the relationships of humans and animals, of offspring and parents, is a form of relating humans to a cosmology. Relating genealogy is relating the individual to the class, and it is so important and valued a form of organizing the universe that the mentality of enumeration survives up into the historic period. The enumeration of all the me's taken by the goddess Inanna from Eridu to Erecb is one of the earliest recorded performances of this mentality, but, so basic is it, that it survives from the Riverine up into the foundations of the Mediterranean epoch. In the catalogue of the ships in Book Two of the Iliad, in the recital of the shades who come forth to speak with Odysseus in Book Eleven of the Odyssey, and in hp recital of the lineages of the gods in Hesiod's Theogony, we have three classical performances of the world view implicitly organized by the mentality of enumeration.

To appreciate just what a transformation of world view it is to move from enumerating to geometrizing, we have only to compare the mentality of Hesiod with Pythagoras or Plato. Enumeration is a fairly straightforward way of relating

humanity to divinity, but when the line folds into triangles and squares, the pattern becomes more complex. One can begin to see the unconscious emergence of the geometrizing mentality in the Iliad, for there the lines of descent are beginning to cross over to create patterns. Leda and Tyndareus give birth to the twins Castor and Clytaemnestra; Leda and Zeus give birth to the twins Helen and Pollux. Then the two sets of twins cross, and Castor and Pollux are raised up into heaven; but Clytaemnestra and Helen remain on earth to become the sources of eros and thanatos in the world of passionate conflict. When, from another line of descent from Zeus, through Tantalus and Atreus, the brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus are wed to Clytaemnestra and Helen respectively, the lines of descent create the outlines of the battlefield of Troy.

When the line becomes the outline of a form, the metaphor that begins to obsess the ancient imagination is the wall, for the wall is the line seen as container. The Gilgamesh Epic opens and closes with a celebration of the wall of the city of Uruk. Book Twelve of the Iliad focuses on the wall the Greeks build to protect their invading ships. The wall is the limit, but when Patroclus dares to go beyond the limit, and when he dares to go beyond the limits of his own identity by putting on the armor of Achilles, he is cut down. With the concept of the limit, the mentality of enumeration begins to pass over into the mentality of geometry, for the limit is the form of a thing's existence in time as well as space. In the first thirty-three lines of Book Twelve, Homer explores the idea of the wall as a limit of the Greeks' presence in Troy, the limit of the length of time of Achilles's anger, and the limit of duration against entropy. The forces of chaos raging at the edges of order are personified as the gods Poseidon and Apollo, who take counsel together on how to destroy the wall through the eroding force of rivers, but it is clear that what is being described through gods and immortal spirits of rivers are the ideas of entropy and order. A genius such as Homer, possessed by his Daimon, maintains a permeable membrane between unconscious and conscious, and his ideas have such power because they are neither unconscious nor overrationalized. In that vibrant state they provide vital material for thought for generations to come, for when Thucydides portrays the Athenian fleet of Alcibiades proudly sailing off to disaster at Syracuse, he is performing the idea of Patroclus donning the armor of Achilles to go beyond the limit to his destruction; and when Anaximander explores the idea of the edge of things, the wall of definition that separates the limited from the nonlimited, he, too, is making explicit what was poetically expressed by Homer in Book Twelve:

The Non-Limited is the original material of existing things; further, the source from which things derive their existence is also that to which they return at their destruction, according to necessity; for they give justice and make reparation to one another for their injustice, according to the arrangement of Time.

The wall is the archetypal image of the limit, the edge between life and death, civilization and savagery, and the poetic metaphor of the wall marks the transition in the cultural evolution of consciousness from the mentality of enumerating to geometrizing. In the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish (circa 1000 B.C.), Ea puts a magic circle around the younger gods to protect them from the god of the underground water, Apsu, The older gods are restloving, but the younger gods throw noisy parties, and so the Great Mother of the saltwaters wishes to destroy them to return to her primordial rest. The thermodynamic activity of the youthful and newly emergent gods disturbs the condition of rest and entropy preferred by the Great Mother, and so the battle of the male god, Marduk, is no longer the old Neolithic cosmology of the male as the symbol of vanishing and the female as the symbol of continuity; it is a battle of form versus entropy, of civilized, military patriarchy versus prehistoric matriarchy, of the enduring and the changeless versus transformation. All the ideas that we have since rearticulated into the Second Law of Thermodynamics have their origin in this matrix of myth.

The Enuma Elish and the Iliad are profound milestones in the cultural evolution of consciousness, for they sum up and finish an ancient mentality at the same time that they announce the mentality to come. In Hesiod's Theogony and in Homer's Iliad, the mentality of enumeration is consummated and finished. Homer brings us up to the edge of the geometrizing mentality, but it will be the work of Pythagoras and Plato to transform mythology into mathematics. And although C. M. Cornford taught us to see that transformation as the great rational leap "From Religion to Philosophy," we now can see what a mixed blessing abstraction is. Homer remains the greater genius, for he understood and expressed in a way that no subsequent writer has surpassed, the violations of order.

Throughout the Mediterranean epoch, this geometrizing mentality is dominant, both in its medieval Christian elaborations and in its Islamic variations that replace iconography with geometry. Perhaps the supreme expression of this geometrizing world view is in the circles of Dante's Paradiso, for at that peak of ecstatic visionary elaboration, Mediterranean humanity can go no further. The revolution for modern humanity will be to clear the landscape by calling all into doubt, and Descartes will sweep his mind clean of medieval geometries to create the grid against which to perceive Galileo's failing bodies.

From analytic geometry to calculus, the genius of modern humanity is focused, not on the static objects held in the geometry of a Platonic ideal realm, but on the dynamics of movement. Plato's circles become Kepler's ellipses. Motion, the narrative that was so inconceivable for Zeno, becomes the beloved of Galileo, Kepler, and Newton. For a few centuries, the notations of movement focus on billiard balls moving in a black space; but in the nineteenth century movement becomes generalized into process, and both thermodynamics and evolution extend the mentality into transformations.

Transformations, of course, bring one to the edge of conventional dimensions, and as the narratives of quantum mechanics flirt with objects of perception that can never be seen but only imagined, human beings begin to realize that there is more to consciousness than objects of perception held in three dimensions.

The end of modernism comes with the multidimensional topologies of mathematics and physics. At first this finish to modernism is elitist and experienced by only a few physicists like Heisenberg or poets like Yeats, but the rise of electronic forms of communication in our generation has democratized this change of mentality, With the ability to express complex geometries in cathode tubes, computer graphics is beginning to stimulate the processes of visual thinking. There was only so much one could do with chalkboard and chalk, or pencil and paper, but now combinations of music and computer graphics begin to permit new forms of play with multidimensional topologies and ancient yantras. As these forms begin to dance in the imagination, they conspire against materialism by whispering in the scientist's ear, "All this is disguised autobiography, for these crystals are the intelligible bodies of angels and the soul." Like the slave in Plato's Meno, who could reason geometrically because of anamnesis, postmodern humans discover mysteries of consciousness where they least expect them.

Even so groping a comparison of mathematical modes of articulation and literary modes of narrative shows us that Lord Snow's famous remark about the "two cultures" of the sciences and the humanities is not helpful in understanding history. Mathematics is relating, genealogy is the logic of one's relations; and both are performances of narrative.

Narrative itself is a human response to time, for it is an attempt to escape the infinity of the present as duration by reifying time into a past. Ex-isting means "standing out," "arising out of the indeterminate," or "setting up." Consciousness without an object, without either a sensory construction or a spatial-temporal horizon, would be so maddeningly disorienting as to constitute a condition of absolute terror. Our response to this terror would be to project immediately a spatial-temporal horizon, to project a world.

Something like this consciousness without an object happens every night in dreamless sleep, but since the ego is not there to get in the way with its interpretation of terror, the experience is not remembered. Upon slipping out of this state of undifferentiated Being (described as returning to Brahman in the Upanishads), consciousness gathers like a dust cloud collecting in density, and dreams begin to project the world of psyche, that shore between the ocean of Being and the island of the ego. Conscious becomes so enamored with these projections that its attention becomes fixed, and it Wakes up into the projection. First consciousness fixes itself in the psychic world, then it falls asleep and dreams what are memories of the psychic experiences, and then it wakes up into the world of the ego to remember the dreams that themselves are memories of psychic experiences. If consciousness were to move without a transition from the fixed attention of the ego to the undifferentiated Being, it would be interpreted as an experience of terror, a death. But this kind of conscious dying, this mystic death, is precisely what the practioners of meditation strive for. Saint Paul said, "I die daily." But the experience of conscious dying is not exclusively a Christian crucifixion, for students of zazen are awakened at four in the morning so that meditation can begin to wear away the membrane between sleeping and waking, and so that as one is awake in one's dreams and dreaming while meditating, the background to consciousness becomes the foreground as all horizons drop and the ground becomes an open space.

Existence is literally a setup, and so our mathematical and literary narratives are repetition compulsions that move back and forth across the threshold of the infinitely extended present. We do the same thing when we scratch an itch or make love: back and forth across the sensitive spot, touching and withdrawing, to enjoy the sense of difference that is, as Bateson told us, the experience of information. Narratives leave the present to touch the present, to explain it, to know it. And whether the narratives say f =ma, or e=mc2, or "In the beginning was the Word," they go back and forth across the erotic threshold that separates eternity and time.

And so narratives are not merely about time, they are performances of time: incarnations in miniature that seek to re-mind us literally. As the bard performs his story, so the mind performs its story, the ego. Since the tongue cannot taste itself and the being cannot know itself, we must come at things through reflection and indirection. We tell stories, but the stories are not always directly about what they tell. Hesiod's Theogony, that great climactic work of the mentality of enumeration, is about the evolution of Mind, from the indeterminate, through the psychic realm of gods, and down to the most limited incarnation, the shepherd poet himself.

All narratives, whether they are artistic, religious, or scientific, are at their deepest level disguised autobiographies of the human race. At the level of the root idea, the Enuma Elish and the Second Law of Thermodynamics are mythopoeic. And when science tells us who we are, where we come from, and where we are going (as Darwin and Freud tried to do), it is inescapably mythic."


How Formative, Dominant and Climactic Cultural Artefacts and Texts Reflect the Evolution of Cultural Ecologies and Civilizational Forms

For every cultural ecology epoch, Thompson distinguishes:

  • a formative cultural artefact or text, which announces the ecology
  • a dominant text reflecting the full advent of the system
  • a climactic text or artefact reflecting its full flowering, but also indicates it is ready to be replaced (Dante's Divine Comedia, which towers as an achievement of medieval art, thus preparing the Renaissance)

William Irwin Thompson:

"All narratives, whether they are artistic, religious, or scientific, are at their deepest level disguised autobiographies of the human race. At the level of the root idea, the Enuma Elish and the Second Law of Thermodynamics are mythopoeic. And when science tells us who we are, where we come from, and where we are going (as Darwin and Freud tried to do), it is inescapably mythic.

Literature and mathematics are related because they both take their toot ideas from myth, but because literature performs the root idea in a personified way, in which the planets, seas, and rivers are experienced as spirits, it is a democratization of myth. Mathematics is a mystery school for initiates, but literature is open even to children. If we look back over the four cultural ecologies, we can see that for each of these epochs, a particular literary masterpiece sums up the adaptation of consciousness to the ecology of a time and space.

As an adaptation to an ecology, literature behaves ecologically in more ways than one. Like a forest moving through the stages of succession to climax, literature unfolds through three stages of succession: (1) formative, (2) dominant, and (3) climactic. The formative work enters into a new ecological niche of consciousness, the dominant work stabilizes the mentality, and the climactic work finishes it.

The formative work for the Riverine cultural ecology is the Sumerian cycle of poems on the courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi. In this love cycle one can still see the historical horizon of the transition from agricultural village to town, for many of the poems are really work songs that maidens could sing teasingly to men as they would beat the churn up and down to make butter. Other poems are competitions between the shepherd and the farmer for the goddess's favors, but all of the poems are clear celebrations of the new agricultural ways of life that are formative of civilization.

The dominant work of the Riverine is the Akkadian poem "Inanna's Descent into the Nether World," a poem in which civilization is now expressed, not in work songs for the churning of butter or celebrations of the shepherd over the farmer, but in priestcraft. The "Descent" is no' villager's poem, but a highly complex investigation into the cosmological dimensions of the planetary balances between order and chaos, civilization and savagery, earth and the -heavens.

The climactic work for the Riverine Cultural ecology is the great Gilgamesh Epic, Climactic works, like formative ones, are Janus-headed and face in two directions: they sum up and finish a world view and also point prophetically to a world to come. In its meditation on death and the slaying of the spirit of the forest, the Gilgamesh Epic was prophetic in its study of deforestation, the civilized alienation of the ego, and the limits of masculine military power; and all of these themes were to become characteristic of the tragic history of human experience in the succeeding Mediterranean epoch.

The formative works of the Mediterranean cultural ecology are the Homeric epics, The Odyssey quite directly sets up the horizons of the Mediterranean landscape in the voyages of Odysseus, but the epic also establishes the basic theme of the alienation of human consciousness from its source, and the yawning gulf that separates male from female, location from home, The epic forms an archetypal pattern that is to dominate literature for millennia, for contemporary works as different as James Joyce's Ulysses and Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth are but modern material cut from the ancient pattern.

The Iliad, which seems to me much older and more archaic in tone than the Odyssey, is the primary work that establishes the world view of order and entropy, consciousness and violence, history and vanishing. So formative is this particular work that I feel that the roots of philosophy and science are here in this whole work and not in the more recognized fragments of the Pre-Socratics.

The dominant masterpiece of the Mediterranean is the Oresteia, for it expresses what is to be the enduring structure of Western culture: the displacement of relationship by abstraction. Instructed by a male god of light, Apollo, the son kills the mother, displaces the rule of ancient Mediterranean custom, and moves out of the tribe into the polis in a celebration of patriarchy, law, and rationality. For the geometrizing mentality of the Creeks, the entire world becomes reorganized, not in the kinship systems enumerated by Hesiod, but in the new mentality of abstraction in which the chorus distances itself from the skene at the same time that culture separates itself from nature in the polis.

The climactic work of the Mediterranean, one that completely finishes the mentality in the way that only a great genius can, is Dante's Divine Comedy. The ancient Mediterranean goddess, who had been displaced from the earth, is now set up in the heavens, and Orestes's polis is transformed into Dante's ecclesia. Reason, which had slain the mother of nature through abstraction, is now wed to consciousness through "the love that moves the sun and other stars." The geometrizing mentality, which had initiated a process of distancing from nature, now finds its true ideal realm in heaven. Ratio becomes sublimated into intellectus98, and the souls of alienated humanity gather in the petals of the White Rose. Pattern flowers,

The formative work for the Atlantic cultural ecology, one that shows the shift from medievalism to modernism, is Cervantes's Don Quixote, a work that for quite different reasons both McLuhan and Foucault chose as the exemplar of cultural transformation. Inspired by a fantastic literature, the equivalent of the communications media of our day, the solitary knight of the sad countenance rides forth in pursuit of a lost culture. Precisely when the traditional Culture is about to break up, when the universal ecclesia is about to be replaced by a universal economy, and when the aristocrat on his horse is about to be replaced by the capitalist, the last knight rides forth. But Don Quixote is not so much a man of the past as of the future. The individual alone with his fantasies, fantasies that alter his very perception of reality, is not a man of the medieval Or the classical world. He is the first modern man whose world view has been transformed, not by parents or priests, but by the media. Precisely because modernism is a wrenching away of the solitary individual from the traditional community, madness becomes the concern of the new age of the mind. Whether we are gazing at the paintings of Bosch, or hearing the cry of Lear on the heath, or watching Don Quixote wear a barber's bowl and call it Mambrino's helmet, we are trying to come to terms with the manner in which the mind creates reality for itself.

The rise of the individual with the new definitions of selfhood is quintessentially a modern phenomenon, and such a cultural appearance is marked by the appearance of new literary genres, such as autobiography. At the formative stage of emergence from tradition, the solitary individual might feel the pull Of madness as the way in which the individual could create a personal cultural envelopment, but as the mind begins to grow confident of itself and begins with Leibniz to celebrate reason as sufficient to understand and control nature, being, very capitalistically, begins to sell its soul for knowing. Knowing begins to eliminate being, creating the tragic irony that knowing really doesn't know, and in the attempt to control nature, the mind simply becomes the captive of instinctive appetites. The dominant work, therefore, of the Atlantic cultural ecology is Faust.

But by Faust I do not simply mean the work of Goethe. Levi-Strauss has argued that every variation of a myth is a performance of the myth and that even Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex is a performance of the myth of Oedipus. In much the same way, the works of Marlowe, Goethe, Spengler, Gounod, and Thomas Mann are all chapters of the larger European work that is Faust. Before the West had such creatures as scientists manipulating the genetic code, Renaissance man imagined the alchemist who sold his soul to the devil, and intuited the shape of things to come. In many ways Marlowe's Faust seems to speak to our contemporary situation even more than Coethe's romantic Faust, for Marlowe's man becomes caught up in the banality of power, of fetching tropical fruits in winter or satisfying his lust for control; but the very satisfaction of the desire to control only leads to enslavement. Knowing can never become being; so only the spirit can unmask the covering over with which the mind bewitched itself.

The climactic work of the Atlantic epoch is Finnegans Wake. Coming from a marginal culture at the very edge of Europe, James Joyce very consciously finished Europe. First, lie finished the remains of the Mediterranean vision in his Ulysses, a work that ends in the affirmation of the feminine brought down out of Dante's heaven and put to bed. Then, having finished with the voyages of the solitary individual afloat on a stream of consciousness, Joyce went on to "press the transition from print-isolated humanity in its book-lined study to H.C.E., Here Comes Everybody. At the time when the hardy objects of a once materialistic science disappear into subatomic particles, so characters as egos with discrete identities disappear to become patterns of corso-ricorso, and history becomes the performance of myth. Characterization is replaced by allusion, and as pattern and configuration become more important than persons, Joyce brings us to the end of the age of individualism. But like Moses on Mount Pisgah gazing into a Promised Land he cannot enter, Joyce brings us to the end of modernism, but be himself cannot pass over into the hieroglyphic thought of the Pacific-Aerospace cultural ecology to come.

McLuhan considered Finnegans Wake to be the prophetic work that pointed to the arrival of electronic, civilized humanity, the creature of changing roles who "mythically and in depth." Obviously, we are now only in the early days of the transition from the Atlantic cultural I ecology of the European epoch to the Pacific-Space cultural ecology of the planetary epoch, and so no one knows for certain just where these electronic and aerospace technologies are taking us. But since I grew up in Los Angeles, and not in Dublin or Paris, I have a few hunches.

The emergence of the he new Pacific-Space cultural ecology is related to the historical events of World War II for several reasons. Hiroshima announced the beginnings of the atomic age, and the airplane industries of the West Coast were to be rather quickly transformed into aerospace technologies. With the postwar rise to greatness of Stanford and Berkeley, and with the emergence of Silicon Valley, the Pacific Shift of America from Europe to Japan Was irresistible.

Perhaps in the next generation or two, a great artist from one of the cultures on the Pacific Rim will create the formative work of art for this new culture, to do for the Pacific what Homer did long ago for the Mediterranean world. This imagined masterpiece may not be literary, for it is hard to deny that the rise of film, television, and computer graphics has created a new sensibility that cannot be expressed in exclusively literary form, The Homeric epics were popular art forms, ones meant to be recited at social gatherings, and so we should not fear that new popular art forms mean the death of literary culture. When oral culture encountered writing, literature was created. If literature encounters video cassettes that have computer animation wed to music, literature will simply reincarnate into a new form; it will not die."



Cultural Ecology Form of Pollution
I. Riverine I. Soil Loss
II. Mediterranean II. Deforestation
III. Atlantic III. Atmospheric pollution
IV. Pacific-Aerospace IV. Noise, Paranoia
Economy (Marx) Communication System (McLuhan)
I. Asiatic I. Script
II. Feudal II. Alphabetic
III. Capitalistic III. Print
IV. Socialistic IV. Electronic
Polity Mathematical Mode
I. City-state I. Enumeration
II. Empire II. Geometrizing
III. Industrial nation-state III. Equations of motion, dynamics
IV. Enantiomorphic ? IV. Catastrophe theory leading to processual, multidimensional morphologies and return of mythic hieroglyphics
Archetypal Religious Leader Religious Mode of Experience
I. Dumuzi I. Momentary possession
II. Moses II. Surrender to authority
III. Luther III. Commitment to belief
IV. Group as an ecology of consciousness IV. Symbiotic consciousness
Characteristic Good Characteristic Evil
I. Humble piety I. Pride, arrogant assertion of self
II. Obedience to law II. Revolt against authority
III. Understanding of doctrine III. Ecstatic escape or transcendence
IV. Universal compassion IV. Collectivization through terror
Climactic Literary Masterpiece Characteristic Cosmogonies
I. Gilamesh Epic I. Enuma Elish
II. Dante's Divine Comedy II. Hesiod's Theogony
III. Joyce's Finnegans Wake III. Darwin's On the Origin of Species
IV. ? IV. Disney's Fantasia