Cultural Dominants (4 of 4)

Damien Broderick (
Sat, 14 Jun 1997 12:07:21 +0000


The typical time-span, or window of opportunity, for such cultural
modulations is the generation of perhaps 27 or 25 years (hence the 12.5 /25
/50 year chunking in my developmental sketch). This is akin to Fernand
Braudel's famous conjonctures and Modelski's global phases. A child of
1890 is a member of the effectual generation 1915-40, and a `baby boomer'
of 1945 will be crucially positioned for consequential collective action
(or opposition) from about 1970 onward - although active opposition to
racism or the Vietnam War, for example, brought this date forward for a
large minority of boomers.

Postulate, then, that each of my six discursive nodes corresponds to a
period of 50 years. Very roughly, the first of two coupled generations
will see a Dominant rise, while the successor will see it at first
consolidated, and then in decline. This procession, if nothing intervenes
to compress or stretch it out, would yield a historical cycle (for the West
in the previous millennium, at least) some 300 years long.=20

Consider a sequence of six `cultural dominants' in the West from, say, 1700
through the zero year 1850 to 2000, then starting again (and for the 300
years prior to 1700, at least). They alternate in the manner of Modelskian
double phases, thus:

1700-1724-1749: Phatic/aristocracy/local loyalties/poor schooling
1750-1774-1799: `We'/absolutism/Classicism (Augustan literature)
1800-1824-1849: `I'/anticlerical/Romanticism ([Michelangelo], Byron)
1850-1874-1899: `IT'/scientific empiricism/empire ([Shakespeare])
1900-1924-1949: Text/unstable absolutism ([30 Years War], WWs I&II)
1950-1974-1999: Code/oligarchical representative democracies
{2000-2024-2049: Phatic/Postmodern and post-industrial fragmentation}

This narrative is not to be taken as describing anything so lawful and
regular as the gravitational orbits of planets about their sun. It
resembles more the apparent modulation of climate as the sun's energy
output waxes and wanes through its 22-year-long sunspot cycle, or over
millennia as the earth tilts and wobbles on its axis. =20

The proposed clock, or cyclical calendar, notates the transition from one
Dominant to another, and perhaps incorporates an alternation in styles of
informational regimes from `top-down' to `bottom-up' and back again.
Forerunners may unconsciously anticipate its urgings by a decade or more,
while the collectivity tends to lag another decade behind the cultural
standard-bearers. This communal sluggishness might be dubbed `Zeitgeist

The birth-dates of a given dominant's first generation cluster within the
second or consolidatory generation of its predecessor. Thus its early
exemplars will reach vigorous maturity at around age 25, their entrained
children 25 years after that; they will be preparing for death in their
mid-seventies (and perhaps disseminating their old-fashioned wisdom to
whomever will listen) as the next dominant surges toward hegemony.

Consider more precise cases. On my suggested Jakobson schema, the children
cyclically entrained to articulate and exhibit the most recent `I' or
`ADDRESSER' dominant were born around 1774, and first acted decisively (as
their peer Napoleon did) around the turn of the nineteenth century, the
birth of Romanticism. =20

The second generation of the `IT' or `WORLD' modality were young adults
from around 1874, and children born at that time might be expected to
cultivate a new modality centring on `TEXT' or `THEORY'. Notable (male)
births of that era were Albert Einstein (b.1879), Pablo Picasso (b.1881),
James Joyce (b.1882), who came of age in the phase doomed to global war.=20

Children born around 1924 were raised - if the model is correct - by
parents steeped in that previous theoretical practice, and might be
expected to re-shape the world according to the dominance of `CODE': James
Watson of DNA double-helix fame was b.1928; Murray Gell-Mann, who uncovered
the nuclear structure coded as quarks and leptons, was b.1929. =20

Similarly, the first generation of culture-bearers governed by the `CODE'
dominant was active between, roughly, 1949 and 1974 - the period of
structuralism, the civil rights and anti-war revolts in the USA - and we
are now drawing toward the close of its second generation. Those children
from around 1949, the `baby boomers', are predicted by the model as peaking
in this second `CODE' generation: Chris Langton, inventor of `artificial
life' literally coded in computer programs, was b.1948; Kathy Acker and
Martin Amis, whose postmodern novels scarifyingly deploy semiotic
transforms of their fin de si=E8cle urban landscapes, were b.1948 and 1949. =

Nor is it surprising that the stirrings of the next, or `PHATIC/
ALGORITHMIC', dominant have been pervasive in avant-garde postmodern and
infobahn textuality of every kind. It is a prediction of this model that
the channel-oriented, the algorithmic, the generic will command the first
25 or 50 years of the new millennium. Such emphases on rule, rote and
formulae work both for good and ill, creatively expressed as computerised
virtual realities and stultifyingly as media pap. There will be resurgent
local loyalties (something we are seeing already, often marked by blood),
with routinised work or none at all.

Is the theory strictly testable? One can run the model backwards in an
attempt to retrodict the science and arts of the last two great cycles, as
well as forward. It is intriguing that Immanuel Kant was b.1724, near the
second peak of the most recent `PHATIC' or `ALGORITHMIC' dominant, and
matured during the first peak of the `WE' or `ADDRESSEE' generation,
suitably enough for the great philosopher of the categorical imperative.
The first generation of the `I' or `ADDRESSER' generation peaked in 1800:
they include William Wordsworth (b.1770), engineer Isambard Brunel
(b.1769). Mary Shelley (b.1797) represents the second generation
emphasising the `ADDRESSER' node; Frankenstein epitomises both Gothic
exultation and unease at Promethean subjectivity, and a dread of the
forceful new empiricism (`IT' phase) beyond the next generational horizon. =

Such `generations' are hardly so tidy, of course. Darwin (b.1809) and Marx
(b.1818) matured during the early Romantic phase of the `ADDRESSER' but
were influential on the emerging first generation devoted to the `WORLD' or
`IT' dominant. Physicist Lord Kelvin and brain surgeon Paul Broca,
impeccable explorers of the empirical world, were both b.1824, on the
rising trajectory into imperial vigour. Composer Edward Elgar (b.1857)
appeared at an appropriate time to be `programmed' as the pre-eminent
British laureate of empirical empire's second or melancholy phase. But no
list of confirming instances can `prove' the utility or validity of such a
schema, of course, as any Popperian will remind us, and evaluation is
perhaps finally a matter of aesthetic choice.

Stipulating for argument's sake that this schema is broadly valid, how
would any given cultural Dominant impact on the `internalist' dynamics of
various scientific and artistic practice? These are themselves parsed by
their different emphases on the six Jakobson nodes. =20

One might speculate that something akin to harmonic reinforcement and
extinction might apply: in a Code-driven cycle-phase like the second half
of the twentieth century, versions of practice dependent upon coding and a
co-ordinated community of practitioners will tend to attract attention,
gain political support, feel `in tune' with the mood of the age. Varieties
less consistent with the pre-eminence of Code and Addressee - specifically,
those accenting the romantic Addresser, and repudiating genre and algorithm
while turning aside somewhat from the urgencies of the given world - will
fail to flourish. Presumably similar effects will be generated by
reinforcement and interference with recurrent global political and economic
power struggles mapped by Modelski's long cycles of a century's duration.

What the cyclical Jakobson schema predicts for our own global culture is
consistent with a balkanised western/post-soviet world early next century,
followed by two generations of imposed `imperial' stability after a new and
terrible global contest for leadership. A restless upsurge of utopian New
Romanticism might be expected in the early 22nd century. =20

Of course, discontinuous advances in technology might change all this in a
stroke, or by a series of utterly unpredictable ruptures. Self-replicating
nanotechnology, and human-level (or superhuman!) artificial intelligence,
will have a profound influence on almost everything human culture has
accepted as givens to this point. Major advances in genetic engineering,
including such singularities as optional abolition of death, might be even
more unsettling. At worst, global ecological collapse or uncontrolled
warfare based on ethno-specific or age-specific designer viruses would
interrupt the ticking of the most ancient and embedded clocks. (I explore
these disruptive possibilities in my forthcoming book The Spike:
Accelerating into the Unimaginable Future.)

Despite the much-vaunted re-discovery of `the body' by some poststructural
thinkers, current Francophile theory is still reluctant to take seriously
the fact that humans are animals evolved through millions of years at the
edge of starvation. It is not impossible that our proudest cultural
efflorescences are fractal foam on the rushing and retreating edges of the
combers of deep evolutionary tides, especially the genetic drives for
sustenance and procreation inflected by local circumstances.

For Walter Benjamin, in a lovely and glacial epigram, history was an angel
flying backward into the future. I propose (if less beautifully, less
terribly) that culture - our engaged histories - is a squabbling group of
humans making our way steadily forward in a riverrun ascent, a path with no
single destination, a re-entrant spiral at once concealed and hauntingly
familiar, known to us in the discursive and somatic memories of five or ten
thousand generations of voyagers, sceptics, storytellers.

Dr Damien Broderick is an Associate in the Department of English and
Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne. His book Theory and Its
Discontents has just been published by Deakin University Press.

[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.]