Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Next Level: Universal Children and a New Humanity


The child is father to the man.
–Wordsworth


In countless conversations–on the phone, through email, above all, in person–David Hays and I cobbled together a theory of long-term cultural evolution in which ever-more sophisticated cultural forms would bootstrap themselves out of the remainders, ragged edges, and random sallies of extant regimes. We looked around for a suitable word, but “stages” had been taken by Piaget, and “levels” had been taken by William Powers. So we settled on “ranks” as our term: The first humans had Rank 1 culture; Rank 2 culture emerged through agriculture and literacy; the European Renaissance–art, the scientific revolution, capitalism, the whole ball of wax as they say–nurtured Rank 3 ideas, attitudes, and practices; and Rank 4 started emerging here and there around the world at the beginning of the 20th Century.

One facet of this process has to do with personality structure. We’ve all got the same basic biology, but different societies organize it into different ways of being human. Different languages, different technology, different architecture, different forms of governance, and so forth, all that’s obvious. But, when you think about it, really think about it, all of that implies and requires different personality structure. That’s more difficult to conceptualize and talk about, and it inevitably attracts the attention of intellectual police of various kinds. It’s also part of the practical tradecraft of diplomacy.

Hays and I come closest to this in our articles The Evolution of Expressive Culture (Hays 1991) and The Evolution of Narrative and the Self (Benzon 1993). What most concerned us, however, is: What’s happening now and what’s next? Those are very difficult questions to answer. Since we’re in the middle (muddle?) of the NOW it’s next to impossible to get the kind of critical distance that allows you to see what’s going on. It’s the old problem of not being able to see the forest because you’re lost in the trees and there’s no helicopter in sight. As for the future, seeing THAT is even worse.

And yet we’ve got to try, if only as a gesture toward steering our way in the now. So I’ve cobbled together some passages from here and there. First, two long ones, the final sections from those two essays Hays and I wrote. Then I’ve got three shorter passages. The first is from A. O. Scott’s NYTimes piece on the end of American adulthood. Then some old notes of mine on “universal kid space,” where you find, among other things, “family” movies that appeal to children from six to sixty and, as Buzz Lightyear would note, beyond. Finally, a short passage from Takahashi Murakami’s essay “Earth in my Window,” where he gives his take on managa, anime, and contemporary Japanese popular culture.

Hays 1992 – Coda: Toward a Fourth Rank

The preceding section makes obvious that many perversions conceal themselves behind the rubrics of politics, art, business, and romance. An object or event presented as art should be coherent, even if its coherence is obscure to any but the initiated. Its coherence should tend to elicit a sense of the coherence of the self in recipients, if only in the healthy initiated recipients. An object or event that broadcasts incoherence is a manifestation of perversion; it is not art. A theater of the absurd is, on its face, itself absurd, although it may be that the facade is meant to confuse only the uninitiated. The sense of coherence and meaningfulness is not paralleled by some sense of incoherence and meaninglessness. The first promotes health and effectiveness, fulfillment and inner well being; the latter promotes breakdown, not integration of a higher order.

Yet the twentieth century has been a time of transition, and transitions are not easy. Three ranks of cognitive capacity and cultural evolution are complete; a fourth rank may be taking shape. If not, then a time of darkness is likely to come next. In times of transition, children are not raised in a way that makes adult integration on the new level as easy as it will later become. They come to maturity with a congeries of incompatible materials in their heads, and no generally accepted cultural pattern to adopt. With luck, some make it; at first, perhaps, only in narrow technical domains, but later larger and larger fractions of the population arrive at the new way of understanding the whole of life. The most fortunate among us may just now be achieving such integrity.

In this context, let me turn once more to ballet. Around the beginning of the century, thinking about time began to change. Motion pictures were conceived and made real. Time-and-motion studies began, and used photographs exposed long enough to record the path of a small light during the course of a complete action. Painters began to try to capture temporal phases in a single canvas. Just at this time, Balanchine began to study ballet. His perception and conception of movement was perhaps in the new vein, different from his predecessors'.

On this interpretation, Balanchine's "art" is quintessentially of the twentieth century. But is it art? We still use the word "science" to identify the study of nature with instruments and mathematics, but serious work in our time is deeply different from the science that prevailed from the time of Copernicus, say, to 1895. Has art, which belongs to Rank 3, been superseded? Did structure, goals, and audience change when the representational manner gave place to impression and abstraction? When harmony gave place to the atonal?

Balanchine's pieces are variously called abstract, pure, or plotless. They are certainly not emotionless, although some pieces seem to present no emotion other than reverence (or awe)--the emotion that Denby could give no name to. If they are of a new kind, not art but something unnamed as yet, then it is all the more remarkable that little children watch them in fascination. As a new rank forms, early work is often cold; to achieve a result of a new kind, the worker gives up what was commonplace in the old kind. Older ballet told stories; Balanchine does not exactly tell stories, but he sometimes suggests them. In Scotch Symphony, the leading ballerina wears a tutu and all the other dancers wear kilts. Man and woman dance together and are separated by a group of men. Without narration or mime, a generic plot comes across.

With better trained dancers, Balanchine could make tighter sequences, and he knew how to form sequences effectively. He could make new combinations of movements over the parts of a dancer's body, and across the whole company. He used these new capacities to arouse more powerfully the modal action patterns of the audience; and once the audience acquired the skill of watching, and the courage to be so moved, he obtained the response and the recognition that he had earned--but development of an audience began in the 1920s and did not cross a threshold until 1947.

And so we continue. Perversity, incoherence, and constriction cover most of the world. The minority that can free itself, maintain dignity, and find fulfillment in work, play, adventure, and love is still small but seems to be growing The creative, productive, and organizational powers of those whose emotions are under control but not repressed is great enough to give them the future. Unless the barbarians once more overrun civilization, the world is moving toward a new stage.

Benzon 1993 – Rank 4: Civilization and Its Discontents

For all its sophistication, however, the coherence of the Rank 3 self has been bought at the price of considerable emotional repression. This coherence makes it possible for us to create large complex social organizations affording a high degree of security for large numbers of people. But emotional dissatisfaction runs high. And so Rank 3 expressive culture began to break down at the turn of the twentieth century, yielding modernism in all sectors.

Some twentieth century narratives, like twentieth some century music, are so dense and complex that only a specialist could love them and then, one fears, primarily because they are fertile territory for scholarly exegesis—James Joyce's Finnigan's Wake and John Barth's Letters are the first examples which come to mind... Many narratives abandon the realism which dominated the nineteenth century novel... Donald Barthleme has blended anything with everything in an astonishing range of short pieces; Thomas Pynchon has done the equivalent in a few long narratives of spectacular depth and breadth. Other writers— e.g. Timothy Mo, Frank Chin, Amy Tan, V.S. Naipaul, Wole Soyinka—articulate their concerns from a limbo between Western and non-Western culture.

It is not obvious to me that any of this is fully Rank 4 narrative, though much of it is profound and moving. Rather, as I have argued in the case of music ... we have a rich and roiling evolutionary soup from which new expressive devices can, in time, emerge...

I do not really know where serious literature is going. Some friends, however, have made comments I find suggestive. One friend, Janet Hays, has suggested that adults, men and women, need to learn how to enact a female role in some situations, a male role in others. I believe her suggestion is aiming beyond recognizing and acknowledging characterological androgyny—that individuals of either sex have both male and female tendencies—to asserting the need for psychological and social mechanisms regulating and supporting switching back and forth from one type of role to the other. When a woman dons a business suit she would thereby undergo a transformation similar to that which occurs in phone booths for Clark Kent. A man would undergo a similar transformation upon donning a housedress or, at least, a Mr. Rogers cardigan.

Another friend, Druis Knowles, asserts that African-Americans are bicultural, acting according to one set of norms among themselves and according to different norms when among European-Americans. Sidestepping the question of just what “culture” means in “bicultural,” Knowles's assertion seems similar in kind to Hays's suggestion. Both are alluding to a fairly high-level organization of personal resources, allowing one to function efficiently in diverse contexts which differ from one another in deep and extensive ways...

Another observation from my own experience seems germane. Back in my days as a university faculty member, I noticed that I was not in a really good research frame of mind until three or four weeks after the Spring semester had ended—my brain had to have one set of modes to handle the academic routine of teaching and committee work and another set for intense thinking. Transition from one set of modes to the other took time.

Extended vacations may well afford a similar change in modal organization. One takes a month off from work and spends two weeks on safari in Africa; then boards a small sailing boat and island-hops in the Caribbean for a week, and concludes with a climb up El Capitan. With all that time away from work, the mind changes and we enter different modes of experience. Reading travel books, or novels, even the best, is quite different from going there. Physically restructuring the mind requires time and a steady regime of different sensations, desires, and acts. That “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment” (Coleridge, 1817, p. 6) through which the Rank 3 reader transports him/herself to another world is but a transition between currently available modes. What happens after days and weeks of exploration has a different quality.

What has to happen so that it doesn't take weeks to get there?—rather, you step through the door and, in a manner of seconds, or minutes at the most, you are in a different world. Back in the 1960s, many of the best and brightest of a generation of Rank 3 Americans sought to make this quick leap with hallucinogenic drugs. Now a new generation projects the same desires into a polysensory and hyperkinetic cyberspace conjured up through virtual reality technology (Porush, 1993). Neither the chemical nor the electronic technology is directly to the point. The chemical technology carries grave risk. The electronic technology has yet to display long-term dangers, but we do not know what to do with it. If we knew what to do, we could realize suitable expressions in any available medium, electronic or otherwise.

In this situation we can only explore, as our ancestors before us, and theirs before them, have done. With passion, trust, attention to craft, and an intellect nourished and strengthened by love, we may emerge in a twenty-first century both brave and new. Avanti!

A. O. Scott: Adulthood’s End?

The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” published in The New York Times Magazine, Sept. 11, 2014:
A little over a week after the conclusion of the first half of the last “Mad Men” season, the journalist and critic Ruth Graham published a polemical essay in Slate lamenting the popularity of young-adult fiction among fully adult readers. Noting that nearly a third of Y.A. books were purchased by readers ages 30 to 44 (most of them presumably without teenage children of their own), Graham insisted that such grown-ups “should feel embarrassed about reading literature for children.” Instead, these readers were furious. The sentiment on Twitter could be summarized as “Don’t tell me what to do!” as if Graham were a bossy, uncomprehending parent warning the kids away from sugary snacks toward more nutritious, chewier stuff.

It was not an argument she was in a position to win, however persuasive her points. To oppose the juvenile pleasures of empowered cultural consumers is to assume, wittingly or not, the role of scold, snob or curmudgeon. Full disclosure: The shoe fits. I will admit to feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games.” I’m not necessarily proud of this reaction. As cultural critique, it belongs in the same category as the sneer I can’t quite suppress when I see guys my age (pushing 50) riding skateboards or wearing shorts and flip-flops, or the reflexive arching of my eyebrows when I notice that a woman at the office has plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair...

Fiedler [Love and Death in the American Novel] saw American literature as sophomoric. He lamented the absence of books that tackled marriage and courtship — for him the great grown-up themes of the novel in its mature, canonical form. Instead, notwithstanding a few outliers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, we have a literature of boys’ adventures and female sentimentality. Or, to put it another way, all American fiction is young-adult fiction.

The elevation of the wild, uncivilized boy into a hero [Huck Finn] of the age remained a constant even as American society itself evolved, convulsed and transformed. While Fiedler was sitting at his desk in Missoula, Mont., writing his monomaniacal tome, a youthful rebellion was asserting itself in every corner of the culture. The bad boys of rock ‘n’ roll and the pouting screen rebels played by James Dean and Marlon Brando proved Fiedler’s point even as he was making it. So did Holden Caulfield, Dean Moriarty, Augie March and Rabbit Angstrom — a new crop of semi-antiheroes in flight from convention, propriety, authority and what Huck would call the whole “sivilized” world...

Y.A. fiction is the least of it. It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (“wait until you’re older”), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content. These symptoms of arrested development will also be signs that we are freer, more honest and happier than the uptight fools who let go of such pastimes.
Cartoons and Universal Kid Space

I devoted a post to various notes about “universal kid space” back in 2010. My earliest notes on the subject date back to September of 2003:
What I find so interesting an peculiar about those films [the early Disney features and similar films] is that they are intelligible and entertaining both to fairly young children and to their parents and grandparents. That is to say, Grandpa’s grandchildren can enjoy these films on their own terms, but so can Grandpa. Grandpa might take special pleasure in viewing these films with his grandchildren, but he doesn’t need to be with them in order to take pleasure in the films; he doesn’t need to borrow his pleasure from theirs.

I think such films, and the cultural space they inhabit, are a remarkable creation. When and where did it come into existence? What are its characteristics?

On the first question, the narrowest possible answer is that Disney created that space in the later 1930s. I do think that is too narrow an answer. We can, for example, look to such 19th century texts as “A Christmas Carol,” “Tom Sawyer” (but perhaps not “Huckleberry Finn”) and the “Alice” books. Most broadly we might think of Neolithic campsites where the band gathers in the evening to chat and to tell stories. Everyone in the band is there and so everyone hears the stories – as such bands do have specifically children’s music, they may also have specifically children’s tales, but I don’t really know. This answer, I feel, is perhaps too broad, as Neolithic cultures are, in general, rather undifferentiated.

As for the characteristics of such a cultural play space, the question arises because of the very different psychologies of children and adults. Here I’m thinking both in cognitive terms and affective-motivational terms. I assume that children and adults construe the objects in this space in very different ways – each according to her needs and capacities. What interests me is that objects can be created which answer to such very different psychologies. How is that possible? What specific characteristics must those objects have?
Robots, Cyborgs, and Kawaii

Takashi Murakami seems to be suggesting all of this and more in “Earth in my Window,” his long essay in Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture (2005, p. 148):
Robots are refined to a level at which they compensate for the inadequacy of human communication, expand human capabilities, and even possess self-consciousness. With the aid of such robots, humans can evolve into superhuman New Types. People themselves become a black hole: life in death, transformation, repeated mutation. Thought stops and the child never grows up. Sucked in by kawaii, you lose initiative, or laugh at your own lethargy and take a robot for a real-world partner. And yet, amidst it all, people awaken and evolve toward a new humanity.

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