In his work over the past forty years, Professor Emeritus of History Marvin Bram sought to demystify the unraveling of that ‘subtle knot’ constituting the human condition prior to the emergence of civilization in the Middle East approximately six millennia ago. Today, I would like to explore some of Marvin Bram’s discussion in more detail. This may help shed light on terminology we have already encountered in our own conversations over the past few months, and help clarify the nature of our current predicament.
It was Dr. Bram who first coined the descriptive expression “Curriculum of the West,” a phrase meant to encapsulate modern (civilized) humanity’s adherence to a specific cognitive framework exemplified by the defining tool of modern consciousness – the syllogism. According to Bram’s hypothesis, a univocal semantic, (A = A) together with a new three-part logistic (Universal –> Particular –> Consequent) lay at the basis of this mode of analysis or deductive reasoning.
As he states, the syllogistic form becomes the framework or “foundation-layer of both the internal and external life of the West” (Humanity 59 [MS]). The syllogism informs all modes of human engagement within the world – moral (religion), social (law), and material (sciences). It epitomizes a mode of thought that elevates the art of distinction-making, or analysis, over that of distinction-dissolving (participation or fusion); its influence is global, effecting perception, speech, action, and one’s overall relations to place and to other people. Yet, according to Bram, these two capacities – originally complementary modalities of our internal life – find a primal and natural equilibrium in totemic consciousness and its pre-civilized social unit, the kinship-based tribe and clan.
Totemism is that internal and external state of human affairs that is vertically unisubstantial [of-one-substance] and horizontally plurisubstantial. It binds persons to other persons so as to multiply substance and maintain amity, and it binds communities to nature to the same ends. It is the world-picture of what we will be calling equilibrium kinship. Perhaps no human arrangement has worked so well, for so long, over so much of the planet. (Recovery of the West, 30)
However, in all post- or non-totemic communities, i.e., modern civilized societies, where both the sciences (natural or human) and the law (religious or social) reign supreme, distinction-making has already gained ascendancy over distinction-dissolving; differentiation, supremacy over fusion or participation. Certainly, we still find some symbolic modes of participation today, for example, in the Christian celebration of the Eucharist, where the celebrant incorporates the body and blood of the savior. And some remnants of fusion are still visible in vestigial forms, as witnessed in feelings of empathy or sympathy. Yet, in terms of daily commerce, experience, and thought, the reality of fusion is a nonstarter in modern culture.
This capacity for drawing distinctions, or creating cuts in the plenum, has become like a cancer within us – its now mutant “cells” continuing to divide and multiply well beyond what the “body” (humanity and the globe) needs to prosper. The result is a mass or growth, a tumor, if you will. And this growth of distinction-making has become like a malignant cancer; this hyper-rationality, driven by the deductive and predictive capacity of the syllogism, allowing for increased control and mastery over the environment, has invaded all other “tissues and organs,” spreading its disease globally.
Bram reminds us about the last forty thousand year period in the life of Homo sapiens sapiens, after the disappearance of the last pre-modern humans.
The origin of civilization in the Middle East about fifty-five hundred years ago is probably the decisive moment in human history. The significance of that origin-moment for internal life is that distinction-making and distinction-dissolving competencies, which had been mixed and proximate for about thirty-five thousand years, were now being forcibly sorted and distanced from each other, the distinction-making competencies ascending in importance, the distinction-dissolving competencies descending in importance.
The significance of the origin of civilization for external life is that social relationships that had been controlled by equilibrium-kinship conventions for about thirty-five thousand years were now being forcibly re-ordered into anti-kinship, bureaucratic and hierarchical conventions.
Equilibrium kinship would everywhere on earth be replaced by civilization. The history of the last fifty-five hundred years has been the story of that replacement, of what has been lost and what has been gained in this or that place, at this or that time. (Recovery, 32-33)
He concludes, “Most modern societies know or believe they know why they cultivate making distinctions.”(29) Yet, they willingly ignore what was lost in that process as well as the disease that it nurtured, along with the vast but emptied hierarchies to which it gave rise. The mental and verbal habits that emerged with the birth of literacy, the cultivation of reason, and establishment of the first social and then scientific laws, created fissures that led to abstraction, alienation, and disequilibrium – personally and socially. As such hierarchies became more articulated vertically, and horizontally more plurisubstantial, the parts of the hierarchies became emptier in both content and meaning. (46) Concomitantly, the life of the increasingly isolated person shrank, being reduced, specialized, and abstracted; the individual learned to live a divided life of anomie, as an emptying part in an empty institutional hierarchy. (48) This signaled the end of kinship as the basis for amity and for social relations.
As Bram summarizes:
‘Equilibrium’ in ‘equilibrium kinship’ establishes the balance of distinction-making and distinction-dissolving. ‘Kinship’ in ‘equilibrium kinship’ establishes the social conventions that such balance brings about. Kinship means that most of the people you know or will ever know are related to you. They will be the only people who will affect your life, and whose lives you will affect… Kinship will be your over-riding social reality, subsuming to itself everything disequilibrium-civilized persons regard as political and economic activities, professional and educational activities. (Recovery, 36)
Due to this primal equilibrium and humankind’s natural capacity for participation – becoming the Other in a distinction-dissolving apperception – totemic (tribal) decision-making was never simply a matter of casting votes or negotiating a strained consensus, but rather, and more significantly, it was an exercise in being of one mind, in short, of fusion. Nor was such participation restricted to the human community.
Fusion permitted persons to become other animate, and inanimate, beings… So the web of obligation and privilege would finally involve every human member of the society and much of the natural environment within which the society made its home. (Recovery, 38)
However, with the emergence of big agriculture, the birth of cities, the rise of standing armies, the establishment of political, religious and economic hierarchies, the reality of social enslavement, and the grand dominion of the syllogism, came an end to equilibrium kinship, the tribes and clans, as a sustainable socio-economic model.
[In a ‘post-kinship’ world] the nuclear family by itself [could not] resist the impingements of modern political and economic institutions: the father, mother, and their children [need to] be surrounded by some intermediate, protective body of persons in order to be safe from unacceptable levels of control. In fact, those modern political and economic institutions could not have been created in the first place unless the original protective body of persons, the clan, was broken into its constituent and susceptible parts, its nuclear families. The first emergence of civilization in the Middle East, and all subsequent civilized nations, were constructed on the break-up of their pre-urban clans. (Unpublished)
In America today, we can see this in the manner in which the diverse institutional hierarchies of the State, under the direction of global corporate sponsors, continue to whittle away at the purported rights elaborated in our social contract – the US Constitution. It becomes more apparent with each passing year that such a document was crafted to provide only the illusion of social securities and personal protections – inarticulate guarantees previously and naturally afforded by the consanguinity and primal affinity of family, tribe, and clan. Yet, in reality, like most contractual arrangements, a social contract (like our Constitution) does little more than validate our sense of anomie and our real helplessness within a faceless system of domination, management and control. Further, it encourages, indeed, it necessitates the promotion of contestual relationships, designed to create winners and losers, in a world where the goal is most unambiguously represented in the claim to offer blind justice, just like the well-oiled wheels of a cold, hard, and impersonal machine.
Such contractual arrangements are always the result of the exercise of undiluted (pure or practical) reason, the calculating logic of science and jurisprudence. Herein lies the true strength of the Curriculum of the West. It was designed to ascertain causal connections and thereby deliver, convincingly and conclusively, control over natural and social relations – and control is what it effectively delivers. The Curriculum basks in the distinction-making process, in analysis, and the deduction of discrete facts that present univocal meanings and predictive conclusions on a unilinear historical timeline; it abhors the intimacy of fusion – its consubstantiality and its natural tendency towards polysemy, participation, and equilibrium. But, like the Fall of Icarus in the Greek myth — who dared to fly too near the sun on wings of feathers and wax — this cancerous growth, this hypertrophied-rationality, too will lead to the would-be hero’s ultimate demise.