The Four Post-Modernizations

Seventh Question:
What Are the Alternative Technologies?

Engineers and others with technical training are in general not superstitious, and with good reason. They see the world as orderly and comprehensible. Their work consists of repeated demonstrations of their comprehension of that order, and the power such comprehension brings. An experimenter, engineer or programmer knows what she has to do to accomplish her goals, and knows she can do it. This is manifestly not the soil superstition grows in. Magic demands ignorance and uncertainty, and most of all impotence. Rain dances persist because people want to control the weather so ardently that they are willing to explain away failure, rather than admit their lack of power. (Devotees of Richard Dawkins may wish to ponder superstitions as memetic cuckoos.) Similarly, in the Trobiand islands, Malinowski found elaborate rituals and superstitions connected with open sea fishing, which was hazardous and unpredictable, but none with fishing in lagoons, which was safe and amenable to mundane control.

We can either control or ignore many things primitives devoted much time and energy to manipulating magically - crops, weather, illness. We achieve this through our technology - which we do neither understand nor control. For most of us, technical change is something presented to us by Them. When we are indoctrinated that every new widget is Progress Incarnate, this is not so bad. Nor is it unbearable if one has an independent source of power and security. But if one sees the fruits of technology as chaos and destruction; if one sees technology as the tool of enemies; if one has no base of power, no secure base; then the march of progress begins to resemble a blind and omnipotent juggernaut trampling everything in its path.

It is remarkable how little power and security people think they have.

Consider a member of the American middle or upper-middle class. He joins a large organization - nominally a corporation or government. While collectively it may wield more power than most emperors ever dreamed of, he himself has very little. From above come orders he cannot ignore, and at his own level and below are nominal co-workers whose own prospects of advancement rise if he fails. Even if he should attain a position of prominence within the organization, this position is in nowise secure. Meanwhile the world outside the organization is (or seems to be) changing radically, perhaps incomprehensibly. Arguably office politics is a tempest in a teacup, which people of sense will meet with a shrug or a grin, but it doesn't seem that way. Since birth (if not before) his formal education has been directed towards ``adjustment,'' and his informal education has been the aural culture. In the unlikely event he has any manual or intellectual skills, he does not use them; middle-managent requires nothing beyond a modicum of literacy. He has neither the independence nor the breadth of mind to put the demands of the organization in perspective; nothing in his environment encourages such qualities, and in any event they constitute the very opposite of adjustment, and are therefore suppressed. The greatest accomplishment of his academic career was very likely the debauch on his twenty-first birthday. In fact, if he majored in education or business he is, for the years he spent in school, among the most ignorant beasts on Earth.

Such a person has only three real choices: He may admit to himself that he lacks power; he may identify himself with the power and goals of the organization, possibly hoping to adapt them to his own aims; or he may take up superstition in the hopes of acquiring power. The first is, for almost anyone, intolerable. The second has been the traditional choice, and overwhelmingly still is. Increasingly, however, while the middle class may learn nothing else during its education, it does learn that it should ``be itself'', which makes it hard to believe that what's good for you is what's good for General Motors. Moreover, as the developed world becomes more unified, organizations which were big fish in national or regional ponds are thrown into a global lake, where everyone is proportionately smaller and less secure. Which leads, naturally enough, to the third option, which is a major business, embracing everything from Dale Carnegie through audiotapes that promise to make you into a paragon to shame the wildest propaganda about the New Soviet Man if only you'll listen, to nervous executives meditating at lunch with their ambitious subordinates on the ``principle of unfolding spiritual creativity.''

The position of those who do not have institutional power to fall back on is correspondingly worse, whether because they are not in institutions, or because their institutions are weak. This goes far to explaining the sorry state of what now passes for the humanities and liberal arts in academia. The intellectual content of such an education is typically matched only by its economic value, but even when a bachelor of the arts has learned something, it is frequently irrelevant to the world around him. (For the record, I take this as a mark against world, not the humanities.) The frustration being greater, so is the degree to which superstition is turned to. Moving to the fine arts, the situation naturally becomes unspeakable. If labor unions continue to decline in America, we may expect the working class in that country to become increasingly superstitious.

If one returns to the roots of the current revival of the explicitly occult, one finds the revivalists saying plainly that they turned to magic as a source of power which was available to them, as technology was not. In the aptly-titled Come Blow Your Mind with Me, for instance, Andrew Greeley provides abundant documentation, including a report of one young man who extolled Tarot cards as a superior alternative to an IBM mainframe. To this day practitioners of such superstitions as iridology and homeopathy sell themselves - successfully and sincerely - as ``alternative'' medicine.

Of course, simply because a post-modern embraces the superstitions (genuine or otherwise) of contemporary Arctic aborigines, ancient European headhunters or ``the timeless East,'' does not mean he will abandon ``science'' and technology. Bantam's New Age imprint published works by distinguished, and occasionally great scientists, such as physicist Heinz Pagels, biologist Lewis Thomas, neuroscientist William Calvin, cognitivist Douglas Hofstadter, philosopher Daniel Dennett, and Nobel Laureates Richard Feynman, Ilya Prigogine and Steven Weinberg. There were also creditable works of science popularization by John Gribbin and K. C. Cole. With no discernible sense of shame or even incongruity, it also unleashed upon an eager world such masterpieces as Creative Visualization (by ``Shakti Gawain''), I Ching: A New Interpretation for Modern Times, Supermind, and The Zen Environment, all leading up to the piece de resistance, the works of Fritojf Capra. Wendy Kaminer is worth quoting at length:

In a high-tech age in which computers are literally child's play, science enjoys considerable cachet, despite a renewed interest in spirituality. New Age appropriate science, or tries to, in an effort to bolster its credibility and expand its market. New Age embraces pop neuroscience - the science of speculations about the creative (``feminine'') right side of the brain and the analytic (``masculine'') left side, the science of brain wave machines that offer push-button Nirvana. Having trouble meditating, peaking, or exploring the furthest reaches of human consciousness? At an altered-mind-states gym, in Cambridge or L.A., you can hook yourself up to an InnerQuest 111 or MC2Dreammachine. The Dreammachine may look like a walkman, but it is really a ``training device for people to experience the multidimensionality of their brain waves.... [It] helps you get there effortlessly without the hassle of mantras or lotus positions.''

The blend of spiritualism and pseudoscience that you find in an altered-mind-states gym is familiar, dating back at least one hundred years to mind cure and Christian Science. It is a powerful and profitable blend, as Mary Baker Eddy, Norman Vincent Peale, and Napoleon Hill demonstrated. Packaged as science, any wishes, speculations, and the wackiest ``systems'' for success and salvation are transformed, through the alchemy of the marketplace, into established, objective truths.

The truths may make no sense, but that only proves their validity. ``Embrace the mystery,'' New Age enthusiasts would say. You're not supposed to analyze the truth or process it logically; in the New Age, you're not required to pay attention. Even the words of best-selling authors only signify outer realities. They outline the techniques that lead you to a self-actualized perceptual space of inner silence, just as brain-wave machines take you to a place of hemispheric synchronization, where your brain is in a state of oneness and, at last, there are no words.

That a disdain for rationalism can comfortably coexist with an attraction to science is one of the wonders of personal development in America. It is also one of the benefits of irrationalism; experts on spirituality and selfhood revel in their inconsistencies. But if the appropriation of science by self-styled spiritual leaders reflects some underlying ideological confusion, it makes sense commercially; that is, it makes money.

By laying claim to science, New Age entrepreneurs hope to lay claim to a share of the science market. Publishers are avoiding the term New Age, Publishers Weekly recently reported, and seeking new, more credible, ``scientific'' labels for their books, like ``New Paradigms.'' Bantam, a leading New Age publisher, has launched a New Sciences imprint, ``hoping to capture the market that has been buying Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and James Glieck's Chaos in droves.'' Bantam is also limiting its use of the New Age label because it alienates readers who associate New Age with crystals, channeling, and other marginal spiritual pursuits. But only the label is changing, not the books or the motto of Bantam's spiritual line, ``A Search for Meaning, Growth and Change.'' Who would dare scorn that?

That a person who believes in crystals and brain-wave machines is unlikely to comprehend Hawking, Prigogine or even Glieck will do nothing to deter them. Such people do not even read books on ``creating your own reality'' closely; years of adjustment-oriented, if not downright incompetent, education combined with total immersion in the aural culture, have taught them to ``skim'' for the ``sense'' of books - or, more revealingly, the ``feel.'' Increasingly, they abandon print for the aural media of ``books on tape'' and videocassette. (What, one wonders, would be Nietzsche's reaction to learning his complete works were now available - if not accessible - to total illiterates?)

It must be confessed that the above is seriously incomplete. Magic and superstition are not the only alternatives. Apocalypticism is another. Its strongest appeal has always been to those whose expectations have been crushed, whose world has collapsed around them. Thus, the medieval millenarian movements drew their members from the landless peasants and the lumpenproletariat in the cities, not the established guilds or peasants whose position, however unpleasant, was secure and unchanging. Other classic instances are the Melanesian cargo cults and the Ghost Dance religion, both responses by primitive peoples to white domination.

Here post-modern apocalypticism offers something rather new. Centuries of liberal and progressive politics, Romantic notions of individuality and self-fulfillment, advertising and other visions of th good life from the aural media, genuine affluence and the dislocating effects of rapid technical change, all conspire to allow everyones' hopes to be dashed and views superseded, if not rendered irrelevant. The belief that the world is presently doomed takes away much of the sting from finding oneself impotent within it; so does the belief that it will soon be replaced by another and much better state of affairs. A mixture of these tonics is more effective than either taken alone.

The final alternative is mysticism. If time itself is unreal, how much more so the prospect of unemployment! - More seriously, mysticism here has much in common with scientific or technical skill --- all are sources of power and security, personally and repeatedly validated. Both the detachment of contemplative mysticism, and the confidence and sense of power of more active, ``naturalistic'' mysticism, are of obvious use to the anxious, the failed and the alienated.

At this point I must beg the reader's pardon for imitating a broken record, and once more bring up technology, which at first sight has no particular connection with the Beatific Vision. Even ignoring such fascinating developments as the InnerQuest 111, this is not so. Mysticism is time consuming, and so traditionally limited to those who, one way or another, persuaded their fellows to pay for their leisure: shamans, monks, aristocrats. Machine-produced affluence vastly increases the number of people who have the time for mysticism. The other link is drugs. The vulgar truth is that all the aspiring mystic really needs is a few hundred micrograms of LSD and the right attitude - and acid often provides the attitude gratis. Even so humble a substance as nitrous oxide can produce mystical exaltation and insight. At $5-$10 for an 8-12 hour dose, a weekend of acid is far more cost-effective than one of beer, and competes with cable television. The prices of other psychedelics are in the same range. It would be strange if they were not used. For instance, the British market for the hallucinogen ecstasy (formally, methylene-dioxyamphetamine) is currently around a billion dollars a year, and is being supplied by labs as far away as Hungary and Latvia; a few years ago a number of people were arrested in Virginia on the charges that they formed a gang which sold 100,000 doses of LSD to teenagers in the Washington suburbs. In short, chemical techniques of ecstasy are alive and well among the post-modern young. And why not? They are discontented with reality, and less likely than their parents to painc when ``all that is solid melts to air,'' because they've been seeing things at least as bizarre on MTV and video games all their lives.

No one is obliged to select only one of these alternatives, and in practice they don't. An ever-changing slurry of superstition, pseudo-science, mysticism, millenarianism, revolution, drugs, utopias, urban legend and conspiracies circulates through the soft, dark under-belly of the post-modern mind. Those driven to take their consolation from it deserve such sympathy as we can spare them. Those who peddle it are another matter altogether.