Cultural Dominants (3 of 4)

Damien Broderick (
Sat, 14 Jun 1997 12:06:57 +0000


Let's leave in abeyance the question of `historical phases' and
`discontinuities', and turn to the second possible schema governing this
cycle of dominants. Consider the metaphor of an individual human's passage
(as mapped by Jean Piaget and other developmental specialists) from infancy
to death. Might this genetically hardwired sequence provide insight into
cultural patterns of growth and decay - if indeed there really are any such
regularities, the kinds alleged by enthusiasts for long cycles of
historical recurrence?

It might seem that even so `genealogical' a metaphor must offend against
contemporary taste, insinuating a determinism repugnant to our
sensibilities, one especially distasteful to today's heightened awareness
of contingency and the non-linearities of complexity theory. To a
generation of poststructuralists attuned to Michel Foucault's strictures on
dispersed, `micro-power' vectors in preference to centralising,
`macro-power', any apparently organicist metaphor must look preposterous.

Is there any reason to suppose that the shape of our lives (let alone our
cognitive structures) is segmented beyond, say, age 14 or 16? I think
there is. Confucius, in the fifth century BC, offered a celebrated
partitioning that is still resonant: `At 15 I set my heart on learning; at
30 I was firmly established; at 40 I had no more doubts; at 50 I knew the
will of Heaven; at 60 I was ready to listen to it; at 70 I could follow my
heart's desire without transgression.'

So let us split up a notional 20th century Western lifetime into somewhat
arbitrary but not absurd sectors of 12.5 years. What's more, I will code
these according to the Jakobson schema.

>From birth to 12.5: early construction of the social self, peaking at
puberty. Establishing communication channels, seguing into addressee as
social self (Algorithm-to-We).

12.5 to 25: the construction of the addresser's individual self, peaking at
the establishment of early parental role (I).

25 to 37.5: emphasis shifting away from individual subjectivity toward
confident dealings with, especially exploration of, the large-scale `real'
or objective world (It).

37.5 to 50: the `writing' of message into the world, peaking with one's
children rearing their own first children (Text/Theory).

50 to 62.5: consolidated mastery of the codes of culture and world alike,
peaking with the shift from specific competences to supervisory roles and
preparation for retirement (Code).

62.5 to 75: mature settling into `elder' role, custodian of the mores and
channels of social order, and preparation for death (Algorithm).

Posit that this developmental history reflects a flexible genetic/cultural
clock regulating individual development with some robustness across many
cultures. Clearly, this is likely to have altered in an unprecedented
degree during the 20th century, when its later phases became stretched out
by our own high-tech medical culture, with delayed or extended
child-rearing, healthy maturity, and senescence. Still, it is feasible
that such a grand template might be assimilated and rehearsed in broad
cultural shifts of Jakobsonian Dominant (within, of course, the limits of
each bounded culture or civilisation).

Is such a weather cycle of discourse feasible? Climatic phases might be
recurrent, but aren't we humans set free of biology, children of
self-reflexive, infinitely mutable culture? While a naturalist such as E.
O. Wilson might hope to draw broad sociobiological lessons from animal
behaviour and the laws of Darwinism, these days it is generally regarded as
an illicit move within the humane specialties. The fashion in human
studies is `thick description', empathetic immersion in local ways. Global
grand theories of social structure and change are routinely rejected as
misguided and simplistic.

The case is not, however, so simply dismissed. Anthropologist Ernest
Gellner notes: `Most pre-scientific societies... build up a tolerably
coherent world-picture, in which background world-story, social
organization, and natural fact are all congruent. The time-ordering
sub-system will tend to dovetail in with the personal hierarchy sub-system:
the big periodic festival, marking the seasonal rhythm, also underwrites
the hieratic rankings' (Plough, Sword and Book: the Structure of Human
History). Given this traditional interlock, it would be unsurprising if
the palpably biological stages of individual developmental were folded into
the grander seasons of a society's ebbs and flows.

Of course, each year brings new births and deaths, so one might wonder how
a universal such as the developmental cycle might be registered (prior to
the epoch of great punctuating global wars) against the continuum of
history. Hunter-gatherers will indeed tend to blur time into timelessness,
interrupted chiefly by random natural catastrophes or rich years,
time-bonded by the round of annual liturgies.

Once civil society has precipitated, however, the clock tends to be set by
the accession of chiefs, kings, or perhaps high priests or prophets and
external conquerors. Although somewhat discontinuous, these in turn will
tend to follow the generational unfolding of a healthy human family (since
kings and priests live well, if spared in battle). Ecology itself can
provide a calibration mechanism, chiefly through shifts in the prevalence
of game or agricultural produce. We are biologically adapted to such
roughly boom-and-bust dietary cycles.

Well, might the `life-span' sequence map the stages of historical change
within a limited cultural trajectory? Where one comparatively recent
Western discursive phase, say, favoured the `I' node (romanticism), another
found its expression principally as Text/Theory (modernism in painting and
literature/ relativity/ quantum theory), yet another within Code (the
structuralist dominant/ DNA decoding/ particle physics)...

We tend to assume that such aggregations are either accidental, or emerge
in response to internal pressures from within the disciplines themselves.
Might we wonder if, instead, such discursive dominants - though hardly the
content of their exact formulations - follow each another according to a
certain predictable order, and for a certain term?

[go to part 4]

[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.]