Cultural Dominants (1 of 4)

Damien Broderick (
Sat, 14 Jun 1997 12:06:15 +0000

In a previous squib, I said cryptically:=20

>the dynamic of pomo - bricolage, algorithm/trope, re-combination - will be
>the Dominant in both scientific and humanities discourses for the next 50
>years. Sorry if that's a bit... compressed. It's unpacked in the book.

For anyone who's interested in a less compressed version, I'm posting a
four-part summary drawn from the end of my book. All the italics will drop
out, alas, and probably some of the formatting. =20

[I ask that none of this essay be quoted or reproduced beyond the extropian
list, as it is still awaiting publication in an Australian magazine.]



What if history isn't arbitrary, isn't just a blind jostling of power and
knowledge-claims? What if human action and discourse track a kind of
Zeitgeist weather cycle, periodic seasons that bias the `spirit of the
times'? During the last half-century, such questions were rarely raised
but suddenly they're cropping up again - as they do, from time to time.

Between the World Wars, Czech semioticians Jan Mukarovsky and Roman
Jakobson noticed that the arts of distinct eras seem to be governed by
different `dominants'. Here's a simple, if obscure, example: in Czech
Realist poetry of the second half of the nineteenth century, Jakobson
noted, `rhythm was a dispensable device, whereas the syllabic scheme was a
mandatory, inalienable component, without which verse was not verse'. =20

For Jakobson, the dominant was the focusing component of an art work, the
aspect that `rules, determines and transforms the remaining components'.
It did not supplant or erase every other aspect of the work, of course, but
it steered creativity through a particular favoured channel. More than 60
years ago, he saw that `we may seek a dominant not only in the poetic work
of an individual,' or the canon of a school, `but also in the art of a
given epoch, viewed as a particular whole.' During the Renaissance, visual
arts became the typical aesthetic criteria, as music did under Romanticism.
In Realist aesthetics, the dominant art was verbal.

Jakobson also proposed a model for any communication process. Its circuit
held six components, somewhat oversimplified and one-dimensional, but
forming a neat flowchart. A Sender exchanges a Message with the Receiver
(or addressee) about some aspect of their shared World, written in a common
Code and transmitted through an error-correcting, reliable Channel. =20

This brutally reduced analysis can be critiqued, deconstructed and
reassembled, but it stands up pretty well once you see that there's always
a flow back-and-forth between writer and reader. So it's not just a
one-way imposition of Authority, from active to passive. =20

Put these two Jakobson ideas together - dominant and communication circuit
- and something strangely illuminating occurs. The history of writing,
according to literary critic Christine Brooke-Rose, can be seen as an
itinerary `round and round the Jakobson diagram'. If I'm right, that's
true for the philosophy of science as well.

Strikingly, the six communication components are themselves large-scale
dominants, which have regulated the flow of ideas in the last six centuries
- and perhaps much longer. These large-scale dominants seem to orchestrate
a grand waltz of ruling discourses from one generation to its successor.
Call them, handily, We (addressee), I (sender), It (world), Text or Theory
(message), Language (code), and Rule or Algorithm (channel).

Dominant literary and artistic schools have lingered at one node or another
for a decade, a generation or even longer (an Augustan Age, a Belle
=C9poche), only to move on inevitably in a new leap to a predictable point o=
the diagram. Science, too, passes from an emphasis on the inspired, to the
empirical, to the theoretical, the coded, and the `cook-book' or=

In my new book Theory and Its Discontents, I propose a kind of discursive
Theory of Everything, which plots a cyclical sequence of six phases or
dominants (drawn from the Jakobson communication circuit) in the histories
of both the humanities and the sciences. It's quite a shocking thought, of
course. What could control or impose such a fixed sequence of dominants?
Let me sketch a cartoon of my lengthy argument.

Two obvious sites to look for the primary script of such a
multi-generational round are both located in human evolutionary biology.
The first is the generations of history. Could human chronicles form
chapters of a regular length, so to speak? The second is the succession of
stages of each individual's life. Might the life-cycle sequence somehow
merge and control the diverse ingredients of that narrative hubbub we call
history? Those are quite different questions from the discredited
historicisms of Hegel or Marx.

There's a simple way to test these possibilities - try to see if we can
parse history, or life-span, into analogues of the six Jakobson nodes. Yet
if certain fairly simple biological and discursive tides might carry us in
their flow, don't we slip into some inadvertently blackly comic horror of
reductionism? Such patterns, if any are discernible, will bear the same
distanced relation to thick reality as Galileo's frictionless planes bear
to an experimental surface of grained wood.

[go to part 2]