Saturday, September 19, 2009

Exposition, Development, Recapitulation

I think there's something to be said for the idea that Modernism stands at the beginning of the third of three great ages of human existence: the one preceding the awareness of consciousness, which Julian Jaynes puts at about the time of Homer; then a long age which is characterized by the long slow crescendo of human consciousness; and then a third age that begins with the awareness of the awareness of consciousness.

Well, perhaps Modernism is really best understood as a logical development of the Renaissance, whose “moment” is the true beginning (as if a single moment can define it) of this third age. But if you draw a rough analogy to the development of an individual human, maybe it would be:
1: Human life unaware of consciousness. Infancy-childhood: human history up to the Renaissance. (Sorry, Age of Pericles; I know you really belong later; you jumped the gun.) Prehistory.

2: Human life aware of consciousness. Adolescence: human history Age of Pericles-Modernism. History.

3: Human life aware of the consequences of the awareness of consciousness. Adulthood: Modernism on. Will there be an early senescence? Probably. Metahistory, or Historicism.

This looks like college-student late-night talk, I know. And it’s influenced by a book many think of as dubious, Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977). Jaynes, an American psychologist who published no other book, held consciousness to be a cultural construct, not an autonomous function of the individual human “mind.” (Those are precautionary quotes; let’s not take up the question of “mind” here.) As I recall — I read the book a long time ago, and haven’t revisited it — he takes care not to fix an exact date or cultural “moment” at which this construct appears; but he does identify it, in the Mediterranean context, with the Homeric age, arising between the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Jaynes cites evidence for his hypothesis in linguistic and economic models, among others, and finds in psychological evidence of our own time parallels to the historical (and prehistorical) patterns of unconsciousness, consciousness, and their interfaces. I found his discussions persuasive; and am particularly interested now to read scientists arguing for the abrupt big changes that can determine human behavior, collectively (politically) as well as individually. Nassim Taleb, in The Black Swan, discusses such cataclysms in the economic sphere; the research geologist Dave Wahl, in the current issue of Terrain, discusses them with respect to climatological changes. (Taleb; my earlier blog on Taleb ; Wahl.)

Historicism is inevitably recursive. I’ve always loved Francis Ponge’s description of recursive irony — he cites Maurice Ravel's La Valse — as typical of periods "when rhetoric, dying, examines itself.” (Lane Dunlop's translation, in Soap [London: Jonathan Cape, 1969]; in the original Ce genre est particulier aux epoques ou la rhetorique est perdue, se cherche: [Le Savon: Paris: Gallimard, 1967]). [Cited in my article “What's the Matter with Today's Experimental Music? Organized Sound Too Rarely Heard,” Notes, December, 1993.]

To continue woolgathering: there may be a parallel between all this and the inevitable process which finds "art" declining from Religion to Art to Entertainment. (See Walter Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction ; and see also Wikipedia on Walter Benjamin. Come to think of it, Benjamin himself should be added to Jaynes, Cage, Duchamp, and many others as a seminal organizer of aware-or-consciousness consciousness.)


Curtis Faville said...

Nice post.

My take on the "progress" of civilization probably derives from my readings of Sauer, Dubos, Bates, Mumford, and Glacken.

The first great age of human development--a period of nomadic wandering, first on foot, later on horse or camel--came to its partial conclusion when man began to domesticate plants, establish settled community, and to "save" culture through recordation of language, sound (music), history, crude science--began, in effect, to have an official "memory" of its own existence. This plateau (platform) brought us to the age of self-consciousness (Greece and Rome) and all the ideas which focused human intelligence upon itself and environment. After a very brief hiatus (the Middle Ages), comes the Englishtenment, the expansion of scientific (empirical) thought, and art as an expression of (intelligent) lhuman potential.

In terms of our rapid agricultural and industrial expansion(ism), (exploitation), we haven't really come to any effective realization about the implications of the unlimited growth paradigm--which is a fulfillment of Smith and Toynbee and Marx. China is still 19th Century England (150 years later).

La Valse is the "infernal" consequence of decadent exploitation--"madness" as polytonality, dancing the gavotte at Versailles as Paris is consumed in flames. Is it "anti"-romantic. Probably, but any more so that Richard Strauss at his most indulgent?

Word verification: toryson

Charles Shere said...

Ah, yes, the Invention of Agriculture. It must surely have been the beginning of the long decline. Among other things, the bringing-into-the-open of the war between the sexes. Jaynes has a lot to say about the results of the invention of agriculture: social structure, urbanization, complex hierarchies of governance, writing and arithmetic… the development of the art and awareness of Memory…

I do love your word Englishtenment; is it new? (All is not gold that englishters…)

The difference between La Valse and any Strauss is the difference between France and Germany, between Irony and Romanticism, between Fashion and Nostalgia, between deftness and dictat.

Curtis Faville said...

Charles, sorry about the misspelling. But must "continents of misapprehension" be accounted for it?

I take it you disagree, then, about the "invention" of agriculture? A "decline"? What an odd notion. Without agriculture, there is little or no culture.

What can be carried on the saddle of a horse, or a travois?

It's a good thing those monks hid the scrolls up in those dry, cool caves.

Agriculture isn't bad; it's good. It's the abuse of it that's caused our problems. Isn't your home-grown tomato in season superior to the corporate farm version? Isn't that the crux of the problem?

Our planet is on the verge of catastrophic events. Is your position a glib scepticism in response?

German romanticism is decadent on its face. Is French rationalism less indulgent? Is Saint-Saens less histrionic than Brahms?

Charles Shere said...

No, no! "Englishtenment" isn't a misspelling, it's a brilliant new word! Since much of the Enlightenment, at least according to my anglophone education, came from the British Isles.

I was of course silly to use the word "decline," I suppose an attempt at irony. "Declination" might have passed, but even it's misleading. Of course agriculture ennabled culture: but for ill as well as, well, well.

I'm not fond of Saint-Saëns, whose music seems to me more Germanic than Gallic. I stand by my last paragraph, finding some difference between decadence and indulgence; but of course it was meant light-heartedly. Damn: I don't want to resort to emoticons here :-[

Curtis Faville said...

The two piano concerti are great fun.

Anecdote: Saint-Saens was asked, following the performance of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande: "What did you think of the music, maestro?"

Saint-Saens: "What music?"


And what, then, of Messiaen?

Charles Shere said...

Messiaen: another German mystic.