By now, I know my tribe: like Lewis Mumford, “I’m a pessimist about probabilities; I’m an optimist about possibilities.” (Or like Gramsci: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”)
If you’re a member too, perhaps you also watched Battlestar Galactica, a sci-fi series that just ended (but will certainly be available in one form or another until the end of time).
Two big truths rattle around in the brain of our world, reflected in everything: the headlines, our entertainments, our prayers. The timeless pessimism of the 3rd-century writer known as Ecclesiastes (1:9) points us to the enduring essence of the human heart and the amazing bodies that bear it: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” When a mother holds her child or a tired man sinks into bed at the end of a long workday, there is no reason to think that their feelings differ from their counterparts’ two thousand years in the past. It’s easy to extrapolate from whatever endures and conclude, as Ecclesiastes did in the very next verse: “There is a thing of which [someone] will say, ‘See this, it is new.’ It has already been for ages which were before us.”
But if those old souls could awaken in 21st-century New York, for instance, could experience the dizzy swirl of electric color that everyone takes for granted, could observe the multitudes striding along machine-clogged streets with small machines glued to their ears, talking to…whom? If they could see the diversity of our crowds, the roles available to women, the (still too few but sizable) numbers who no longer hate the stranger, they would have to acknowledge that perhaps some things are new under the sun after all. They might even believe, as I do, that history admits the possibility of choice and change. In The Culture of Cities in 1938, facing what he imagined to be as much as a century of fascism’s ascendancy, Mumford wrote this:
Instead of clinging to the sardonic funeral towers of metropolitan finance, ours [is] to march out to newly plowed fields, to create fresh patterns of political action, to alter for human purposes the perverse mechanisms or our economic regime, to conceive and to germinate fresh forms of human culture.
So yes, “the sardonic funeral towers of metropolitan finance” still fits like a glove. And so does the possibility of “fresh patterns of political action.”
In the last moments of Battlestar Galactica’s final episode (which aired this past Friday), two key characters, whose perspective spans hundreds of thousands of years, survey the prospects of humankind. Ecclesiastes seems to be winning, but Mumford’s sense of skeptical possibility triumphs: “Let a complex system repeat itself long enough,” says one, “eventually something surprising might occur. That, too, is in God’s plan.”
Every day now, Ecclesiastes and Mumford do a little dance in my mind. Mumford was a bit premature in Technics and Civilization in 1934 when he wrote that “Today, the notion of progress in a single line without goal or limit seems perhaps the most parochial notion of a very parochial century.” But at last he has been proven right. What he had to say in Values for Survival in 1946 resonates so strongly with my own belief in cultural recovery, it seems like tomorrow’s news (except that the avatars of love I would list include categories that weren’t even on Mumford’s radar):
If we are to create balanced human beings, capable of entering into world-wide co-operation with all other men of good will—and that is the supreme task of our generation, and the foundation of all its other potential achievements—we must give as much weight to the arousal of the emotions and to the expression of moral and esthetic values as we now give to science, to invention, to practical organization. One without the other is impotent. And values do not come ready-made: they are achieved by a resolute attempt to square the facts of one’s own experience with the historic patterns formed in the past by those who devoted their whole lives to achieving and expressing values. If we are to express the love in our own hearts, we must also understand what love meant to Socrates and Saint Francis, to Dante and Shakespeare, to Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti, to the explorer Shackleton and to the intrepid physicians who deliberately exposed themselves to yellow fever. These historic manifestations of love are not recorded in the day’s newspaper or the current radio program: they are hidden to people who possess only fashionable minds.
My own vocabulary is a little different: I’d express this conviction by saying that cultural democracy, cultural recovery, cultural action are all integral to the project of becoming what Mumford calls “balanced human beings.” Whatever people like you and me do now to move this forward, to really have impact, our actions will have three simultaneous functions: each should work as art, demonstrating what is possible through the infinite variety of human creativity; as social or political action, affording a glimpse of what could be and helping people move toward it; and as spiritual practice, aligning our intentions with healing and with abundant opportunity to express, connect and illuminate.
Yes, from before Ecclesiastes’ time, there has been ample reason to doubt that a real and significant shift is possible. And yet: “Let a complex system repeat itself long enough, eventually something surprising might occur.” This triple awareness and intention is needed now to potentiate the change. What will we do that works in all three realms?
Click here to download the Cultural Recovery concept paper.