As our century draws to a close, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are going through a fundamental change of world view and values, a change of paradigms as radical as the Copernican Revolution. Instead of seeing the universe as a machine composed of elementary building blocks, scientists have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships and that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain but also the immune system, the bodily tissues and even each cell as living cognitive systems. Evolution is no longer seen as merely a competitive struggle for existence but rather as a cooperative dance in which creativity and the constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces.
Because a community's paradigm, according to Thomas Kuhn, is always embodied in its practices and institutions, the current sense of profound change is not confined to science and philosophy but is felt throughout society as a breakdown of social and political institutions, values and conceptual structures. Over the last 30 years, the multiple facets of this cultural transformation have been explored and analyzed in numerous books, including Theodore Roszak's "The Making of a Counterculture" (1969) and "Where the Wasteland Ends" (1972); my own "The Tao of Physics" (1975) and "Turning Point" (1982); Hazel Henderson's "Creating Alternative Futures" (1978) and "Paradigms in Progress" (1991); Marilyn Ferguson's "The Aquarian Conspiracy" (1980); Morris Berman's "The Reenchantment of the World" (1981); and Riane Eisler's "The Chalice and the Blade" (1987).
"The Resurgence of the Real" by eco-feminist Charlene Spretnak continues this analysis of our cultural transformation. Spretnak is no stranger to cultural critique; her previous works include an anthology, "The Politics of Women's Spirituality," and an eco-feminist critique of deconstructionist philosophy, "States of Grace." In her new book, Spretnak addresses a sweeping question: Is there a general pattern behind the breakdown of old thought forms and institutions? Her answer is a resounding yes. What other authors have called a "crisis of perception" and a "paradigm shift" is nothing less, in her view, than the breakdown of modernity: "Modernity produced painful 'contradictions' that were wrestled with throughout the 19th century, but our own century has witnessed the outright failure of many of the assumptions of the modern worldview."
With clarity and passion, Spretnak offers an insightful and persuasive critique of what went wrong with the modern project. Modernity comprises four distinct characteristics:
* Linear thinking, expressed in the belief in unlimited material progress through economic and technological growth and in the belief that the efficiency of current economic practices is more valuable than human well-being and ecological sustainability;
* The mechanistic view of the physical world as a mechanical system composed of elementary building blocks, which entails the positions of objectivism and rationalism as well as the prejudice of scientism;
* The social Darwinist view of life in society as a competitive struggle for existence, reinforced by a much older patriarchal socialization;
* The anthropocentric view of human culture as being in opposition to nature, which is thought to have merely instrumental value, i.e. to be of value only to the extent that it is useful to humans.
Spretnak's two-page synopsis of these characteristics does not add new elements to previous descriptions of the "old paradigm." However, it is admirably concise and thorough--the most comprehensive summary I have read. Spretnak also lists several important consequences of the basic ideas of the modern worldview. She points out that the fixation on economic growth has led to the view of humans as essentially economic beings and to a strong emphasis on industrialization and material consumption. The application of the mechanistic model to the design and organization of work and the overriding emphasis on efficiency have led to standardization, centralization and bureaucratic hierarchies as further characteristics of modern societies. The application of reductionist thinking to social organization has resulted in the fragmentation of society into separate religious, ethnic, professional and "special interest" groups that is so typical of the modern era; the anthropocentric stance of modern culture has brought with it a widespread contempt for indigenous peoples and their tribal, earth-centered ways of life.
The historical roots of modernity lie in four "foundational movements": the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. As the author reviews the intellectual history of these movements, she does not simply retell an often-told story but provides an incisive analysis of the interrelations between the four cultural streams, focusing on the "problematic aspects that led to the modern crises." For example, she shows how the Reformation's doctrine of God's absolute sovereignty precluded revelation through the contemplation of the natural world and thus prepared the way for the idea of the passivity of nature that would become central to the Scientific Revolution.
An extensive and well-documented section of "The Resurgence of the Real" is devoted to the destructive consequences of modernity in three major areas: economics, politics and education. In economics, Spretnak concentrates on the devastating effects of the new global economy, beginning with a concise summary of the claims advanced by the advocates of "free trade," uncovering the fallacies of their arguments point by point. In politics, she shows how the recent political tragedies resulting from the independence efforts of such peoples as the Kurds, Basques, Tibetans, Chechens, Slovenians and Croats can best be understood in the context of the thousands of indigenous nations that have been surrounded or divided by the boundaries of modern nation-states and have no legal forum in which to present their case for sovereignty.
In education, Spretnak discusses the negative effects of television, video games and computer games (including so-called educational software) on our children's cognitive, emotional and moral development. She reviews the systemic critiques of modern technology developed by numerous authors from Rachel Carson and Lewis Mumford to Neil Postman and Jerry Mander. As these critics have pointed out, our modern mega-technologies--vast automated systems of telecommunication, transportation, money transfer, surveillance and warfare--have become so autonomous and totalitarian that all cultural expressions are becoming subordinated to technology. Progress is no longer associated with an increase of human well-being but is identified with technological progress, even at the expense of human well-being.
Spretnak's critique of modernity is much more than a philosophical treatise. It deals explicitly with the concrete problems of our time and suggests systemic approaches to their solutions. Moreover, she explores not only the historical roots of modernity, but also the history of the resistance against it.
The first strong opposition to the modern worldview came from the Romantic movement in art, literature and philosophy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Goethe, a central figure in the development of holistic and ecological thought in Germany, concentrated his scientific work on the nature of organic form, which he saw as a pattern of relationships within an organized whole. "Each creature," he wrote, "is but a patterned gradation (Schattierung) of one great harmonious whole." At the same time, William Blake summarized his critique of Newtonian reductionism in the celebrated lines:
May God us keep
from single vision and Newton's sleep.
Spretnak chronicles the manifestations of several resistance movements to modernity, from the Romantic movement to the Arts and Crafts movement, Gandhi's vision of spiritual renewal and the counterculture of the 1960s. Especially impressive is her subtle, well-documented analysis of how Nazi propaganda successfully manipulated German discontent with modernity while embodying a "detached, instrumental rationality" in its efficient bureaucracy.
Spretnak's otherwise fine historical account is slightly skewed because the counterculture is assessed from a somewhat narrow California perspective. The resistance movement of the '60s was a powerful international movement that included not only Berkeley's Free Speech Movement and the psychedelic art and music of San Francisco but also the civil rights marches, the Prague Spring, the May '68 student uprising in Paris, the theater of Peter Brook and the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Luc Godard. The definitive history of the '60s still needs to be written.
The current challenges to the lack of connectedness and consequent alienation of modern society are manifest, according to Spretnak, in the resurgence of three aspects of "the real." One is the new understanding of the unity of body and mind that is emerging in the life sciences as well as in the widespread practice of alternative, or complementary, medicine. The second aspect is the view of all living systems, including the planet as a whole, as being creative and self-organizing, a view that is being developed in the new science of complexity. The third is the rediscovery of the importance of community and a sense of place by numerous grass-roots movements. According to Spretnak, this resurgence of body, nature and place represents a resounding rejection of modernity's view of "the body as nothing but a biological machine, the biosphere and cosmos as nothing but a predictable, mechanistic clockwork, and place as nothing but background scenery for human projects."
Spretnak's discussion of currently emerging scientific concepts is remarkably lucid and accurate. Three minor errors, however, have crept into her narrative. John Bell did not devise a series of experiments that revealed unsuspected "nonlocal connections" in the quantum world. He predicted this nonlocality on the basis of a theoretical argument, now known as "Bell's theorem." The first experiments that confirmed Bell's prediction were carried out more than 10 years later.
Second, the consequences of chaos theory are radical not because the theory uses nonlinear equations to model stochastic (i.e. random) dynamics but because the seemingly random behavior occurs in systems described by deterministic equations.
Finally, the mechanistic theory of evolution that is being replaced by a more subtle systemic view is not Darwinism but neo-Darwinism. Unfortunately, this is a widespread confusion. Darwin's central insight that all forms of life have emerged from a common ancestry by a continuous process of variations, followed by natural selection, is accepted by all serious scientists today. What is mechanistic is the neo-Darwinist dogma that the variations arise exclusively from random genetic changes (mutations).
In spite of these quibbles, I tremendously enjoyed reading "The Resurgence of The Real." Written with great fluency, carefully researched and richly annotated, this is a superb book. Challenging and engaging on every page, it is a book I can wholeheartedly recommend to everyone concerned with the fundamental problems of our time and interested in "the big picture"--the decline of an outdated paradigm and the emergence of the postmodern, ecological vision of reality that will be crucial for the survival of humanity in the 21st century.