6 Cultural Regression

What goes up, may come back down. Historiography in the modern era saw progress in the rise of the West and the radiation of Western tools, tastes, sciences, ideologies, and forms of social organization. The marching boots of World Wars I and II muddied that stream of narrative. The post-WWII decolonizing era ushered in new global sensibilities, and even within the West, postmodernism looked askance at the idea that Western culture somehow improved on any of the others. Eclectic appropriations of poly-cultural religions, meditation practices, workout programs, fighting styles, fashion accessories, diet fads, drinks, and dishes became the latest turn of the wheel of Western consumerism. Postmodernism flips from paleo and primitive to forward-learning and futuristic in almost the same motion. For postmodernism, time’s arrow lacks both head and tail, because no direction can claim privilege. Sometimes culture needs to catch its breath. On a cultural level, you can certainly shop till you drop for all the latest everything, but every cart has its capacity. There comes a time when piling more in implies spilling more over.

Children grow into the mentalities of their parents, at most. Mostly. In times of rapid social and material change, there may arise generation gaps in which children adapt to a world their parents never knew. That is one definition of progress or cultural evolution. But far more likely, children struggle to even reach normal adult functioning in whatever cultural stage or level their family may already occupy. The current disciplines of psychology and psychotherapy document developmental hitches, detours, and stagnations for myriad reasons. “Normal” adult development is not always the norm. (Kegan, 1982; Vaillant, 1993; Van der Kolk, 2014). Lack of attachment, trauma, social adversity, disease, deprivation – it all adds up. Given that personal development tends to recapitulate previous stages of cultural evolution, current adults who fail to integrate Kegan’s self-transforming mind (to cite just one model) may manifest the more impulsive or ritualistic behaviors that once led our cultures. Street gangs can be interpreted as Viking warriors out of time (Freinacht, 2017). Fundamentalist zealots are inquisitors manqué. Developmental differences thus create a sort of cultural time capsule in which we can view the characteristic behavior styles of all prior epochs, all on the same urban streets.

At the level of leading cultural paradigms (integral, Spiral Dynamics, and metamodern “memes”), sometimes reorganization is required. Like corporations hungry for improved profit margins, sometimes cultural systems need to shrink to grow. The creative process has its dark nights. The cycle of integration-disintegration-higher integration has both personal and social dimensions. Disintegration may feel like a step back, and in some ways, it is. Whether evolution or devolution results from a deconstructive turn cannot be predicated with any certainty. Alaric the Goth deconstructed the cultural frameworks and master narratives of Caesar and Cicero, but it mostly got reintegrated again, a thousand years later, give or take.

Is the West still rising? Is it dead already, or in danger of a fatal wound? Or must the West just be tamed through cultural sensitivity training and properly postmodern manners, whatever those may be? (Elias, 2000) Will the West give way to the World or will the World concede to the West? The questions themselves imply the form of an answer. None of these, because linear narratives don’t map current global realities. Our stories of the future need to circle,  spiral, cycle, and inter-weave. Everything old is new again, every time the next child enters the world. To educate children to the current leading edge of culture is no mean feat. Mostly we fail. We fail because we try to skip the steps we no longer readily identify with. It turns out that myth is built on magic, and mind is built on myth. Post-postmodern meta-mind (pick your model) must build on modern and postmodern mind first. Mind on myth on magic. As Robert Kegan points out, for personal development, each developmental stage treats its previous self as an object, an object which the now higher and freer self is able to marshall with positive effect. The postmodern self, however, has little sympathy for what got it to where it is. Physical training in the natural world; group affiliations, loyalties, commitments, and story-telling; boring manufactures and calculations – this all sounds like old news and tedium to the ever-critical postmodern sensibility. The problem is, without old-time values like courage and structure and production, among other things, we don’t get to eat. Or live in houses. Or wear clothes. To appreciate cultural diversity, one needs to appreciate culture in the first place. And not just fun parts you can decorate with. There are also matters like working the land, moving the goods, and constructing the buildings. To evolve to the next level, we also need to revisit and reappropriate our more ancestral layers. These layers are all still in us, whether we acknowledge them or not.

Current meta-models, aiming to transcend and include postmodernism, point to some form of cultural integration as the next phase. This integration cannot be imperial or mechanical however. Those have been tried, and we outgrew them for good reasons. But postmodernism, much in love with criticism but less enamored with construction, often implements its preferred programs of tolerance and mutual understanding in rather imperial or mechanistic styles. Postmodernism seeks funding for the criticism of business; it deconstructs organized religion as a matter of faith. This leads to what Habermas calls performative contradictions. So the meta-models try to retain postmodernism’s critical edge, while using that edge to sharpen the productive implements of adaptive systems going forward. Progress is earned, not inherited. To build beyond the past, we need to at least respect the foundations upon which we hope to  build.


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Civilization and Education Copyright © by Robert Bunge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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