Cultural Dominants

Reilly Jones (
Sat, 14 Jun 1997 06:25:11 -0400

Damien Broderick wrote 6/13/97: <What if human action and discourse track=
kind of Zeitgeist weather cycle, periodic seasons that bias the `spirit o=

Montesquieu entertainingly dwelt on this question at length in "The Spiri=
of Laws" (1748), climate and temperament went hand-in-hand. The analysis=

given by Damien seems to be a refinement of an old idea. In "The History=

and Geography of Human Genes" by L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi &
Alberto Piazza (1994), pgs. 142-5, the authors find a strong correlation
between human genetic components and absolute temperatures (lending
confirming evidence to Montesquieu's general theory, if not to his specif=
characterizations), and a weaker correlation with humidity. Only a handf=
of specific genes have strong correlations with climate, a comparatively
slight impact. The authors are at pains to point out how difficult it is=

to separate out the effects of climate from historical movements and from=

the effects of natural selection.

Damien: <Between the World Wars, Czech semioticians Jan Mukarovsky and
Jakobson noticed that the arts of distinct eras seem to be governed by
different `dominants'.>

I ran across an interesting exercise in the perennial philosophical
exercise of categorization along this line in a work by Alan Gowans calle=
"On Parallels in Universal History Discoverable in Arts & Artifacts"
(1972). Rather than tracking sunspots or earth wobbles, he tracked the
systematic development of human thought beginning from questions we all
have in common (because we all experience the same objective reality), an=
following the logic of the answers as they are tried out in concrete form=
of life. Coincidentally, he also looked to approximately 300 year
increments (not really "cycles" but periods of translating thoughts to
their full consequential forms).

Some interesting things he wrote: "The ideological presuppositions of an=
given era ultimately determine the character of all its arts =AD what kin=
of artifacts it produces, and what forms they take. Likewise they will
determine any fundamental changes of artistic style or directions of
development =AD both for those arts supporting current ideologies, and th=
opposed.... All arts and artifacts everywhere embody the ideas and
aspirations of human beings at a given moment in time...."

Hmmm... No mention of sunspots or climatological mood swings here, only
individual human thoughts.

Gowans: "Ideas can only develop in minds already accepting their
presuppositions; and these presuppositions cannot be forced in, nor picke=
up by chance observation. Or more succinctly, to be absorbed and acted
upon, truths must seem self-evident. The kind of questions that any
civilization asks about itself and the world is determined by the
presuppositions it takes to be self-evident truths.... Underlying mental=

attitudes of civilization in any age are not transmissible in the ordinar=
sense. They are absorbed by rather than taught to its members. They are=

not arrived at by reasoning processes, but instead provide the foundation=

for whatever reasoning processes a given civilization may employ...."

I think Damien gets at some of this when he writes "the collectivity tend=
to lag another decade behind the cultural standard-bearers. This communa=
sluggishness might be dubbed `Zeitgeist inertia'."

Gowans concludes: "So far from arts being determined by means of producti=
or being reflections of the spirit of an age, the principle of arts being=

determined by social function makes them chief agents for the ideas which=

determine economic, political, religious, and all other institutions of
society. Or more simply =AD arts create Zeitgeist, not the other way rou=

Its true that social functions are formed by many factors, including
climate and geography; but always foremost is the factor of the
individual's relations with groups of outsiders, that is, individuals who=

do not hold the presuppositions taken to be self-evident truths. Our own=

inventions and the nutcases who wield them are far more of a threat to
human survival than anything Mother Nature is likely to throw our way. S=
arts are determined by social function, which is overwhelmingly determine=
by individuals, and arts create Zeitgeist - the role of the weather seems=

to be missing.

Damien: <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. 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.>

No need to critique, deconstruct or reassemble this, the premise is fatal=
flawed at the outset. I do not see that there's always a flow
back-and-forth between writer and reader. This is nonsense. A writer
sends forth words into the wild blue yonder. Period. One-way. The
message is not "exchanged," it is sent. What the reader does with it is =
to the reader, not the writer, and most certainly not with the climate or=

with sunspots.

Damien: <The history of writing, according to literary critic Christine
Brooke-Rose, can be seen as an itinerary `round and round the Jakobson

It can also be seen in many other ways, but which way is true? The histo=
of writing is not cyclical in any way, it is a tale of individuals, of
point-sources of words cast upon the ocean or its tributaries, to be
delivered up to a fortuitously receptive mind, or to be stuck in an eddy =

Damien: <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 see=
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

Sigh... More pop mysticism of a new variety and just when I was starting=

to get the hang of interpreting planetary conjunctions within Placidian
houses. I can't wait for eudaemonia-in-a-pill, all this learning new
arcania is so painful. I'll cover this tiresome academic quasi-determini=
in some general comments down below.

Damien: <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 th=
histories of both the humanities and the sciences. It's quite a shocking=

thought, of course.>

Nothing shocking about this thought at all, except that here it comes aga=
on the E-list. This whole historical cycle nonsense was brought up by so=
fortune-teller wannabe back in March of this year. I recall some ravings=

about "The Fourth Turning" by Strauss & Howe. I will repeat what I poste=
then, that the market-targeted readers for this genre are the
tried-and-true gullible aging yuppies with the narcissistic urge to read
about their life, have their palms read and have money to waste. Once
again, the fallacy of analysis like this, is that you can start arbitrari=
anywhere in history, in any given year, and make historical facts fit
whatever cycle you choose, quite possibly without invoking either Ptolemy=
epicycles or Guth's inflation. But history is continuous, one year after=

another, no one year any different than any other year, every year of equ=
length. No year is to be given a privileged position when starting a
cyclical analysis. There is no "generation" identifiable anywhere except=

in relation to yourself and yourself alone. To arbitrarily assert
otherwise is to commit a category error in analysis.

Damien: <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 =
stages of each individual's life. Might the life-cycle sequence somehow
merge and control the diverse ingredients of that narrative hubbub we cal=
history? Those are quite different questions from the discredited
historicisms of Hegel or Marx.>

The generations of history is "The Fourth Turning" sleight-of-hand, utter=
arbitrary unless self-centered. The succession of stages is just more
quasi-deterministic academic depth pschology (like Gail Sheehy using big
words). They both are recognized as being another permutation of
historicism, the attempt to sneak determinism back into liberty-loving
Western polities to subvert them, and just as discredited as any other

Damien: <Clearly, what's needed is a theoretical perspective able to bind=

together the empirical evidence for historical recurrences, and organise
them into a schema of some robustness.>

Clearly, what's needed is some extreme skepticism about so-called
"empirical evidence" for historical recurrences. Individuals aren't
pistons in an engine, they never recur. Individuals make history and
individuals never recur, so why should history recur? History in the
modern sense only arose when the individual was taken to be of supreme
worth, the dignity of man. This was specific to Greco-Roman culture and
Western Christianity, no other cultures, anywhere or any time, ever
developed this notion. Attempts to make history into quasi-deterministic=

recurrent cycles are therefore attempts to degrade the worth of the
individual, to strip the dignity from the lone human. Indeed, it flushes=

the notion of history down the toilet and takes science along with it.

Damien: <We are now living through the exhausted stage of an American
century, and, if no better and more humane means is devised for
adjudicating leadership, the world is probably doomed to a new global war=

in perhaps 2030 (but not until then).>

"Exhausted stage"? Is this an empirical statement of fact, or might it b=
a bit of chafing over Australia being off the radar screen when it comes =
current superpower status? "Humane means" for "adjudicating leadership" =
always - always - code for One World Government. Adjudicating requires
jurisdictional authority, such jurisdiction in the question of world
leadership can only be the entire world. I'm afraid that world tyranny
won't go down well with several groups of individuals who have access to
weapons of mass destruction and the will to use them to protect their own=

jurisdiction from encroaching world elite busybodies who want to save the=
from themselves. In the meantime, thanks for the hot tip! I'm investing=

heavily in stock put options that expire in '29.

Damien: <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.>

I've seen more unambiguous horoscopes than this, casting haruspices is
tricky work. The ol' forecasting rule of thumb is: "give 'em a date or
give 'em a number but never give 'em both at the same time."

Some general comments:

Isaiah Berlin in "The Crooked Timber of Humanity" writing on where these
quasi-deterministic ideas come from: "The relativism which has so deeply
troubled historians, sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers of
history during the last hundred years is, in the main, if not entirely, a=

legacy of the schools of thought which look upon human activity as being
largely caused by occult and inescapable forces of which explicit social
beliefs and theories are rationalizations =AD disguises to be penetrated =
exposed. This is the heritage of Marxism, of depth psychology, of the
sociology of Pareto or Simmel or Mannheim."

Ugh... there it is, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - Marxism,
psychology, sociology and anthropology. Individuals, beware!

I posted to the E-list about "Individualistic History" back in March '97.=

The occasion was some excellent comments by the Australian historian Keit=
Windschuttle, in his essay "The Real Stuff of History" published in "The
New Criterion" March 1997. Windschuttle correctly pointed out that
anthropology and sociology have long lost their intellectual
respectability. He also delivered a devastatingly accurate indictment of=

why academia has waged war on the individual.

First, he points out that Ferdinand Braudel (mentioned by Damien) wrote i=
"The Identity of France": "Men do not make history, rather it is history
above all that makes men and absolves them of blame." Therefore, I would=

say that attempts to find deterministic cycles in history, whether it's
caused by our genes or by the climate, are childish efforts to achieve
freedom from the consequences of our actions.

Secondly, he wrote about the reaction of Western academia to the politica=
disappointments of 1968: "[T]his kind of historical determinism became a=

comfort blanket for the academic Left. There was no longer any need for =
radical to be politically active since activism could make no difference =
the great determining structures. All that remained was to study,
theorize, and debate the nature of the structures themselves. This was a=
agenda perfectly suited to the academic world of seminars, conferences,
cafes, and bars, and to the careers, tenure, and promotions that have
focused their minds ever since."

Ouch! I'm glad I'm not a professor, that barb would've sunk deep.

Reilly Jones | Philosophy of Technology: | The rational, moral and political relations=

| between 'How we create' and 'Why we create'=