Equilibrium and the Fall of Icarus

The Fall of Icarus

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.

22 Responses to Equilibrium and the Fall of Icarus

  1. relentless says:

    Thank you Sandy. i absolutely love this post! i haven’t read Bram, other than as his intro to one of your books, and a few other tidbits you’ve offered. i will seek his work out. My condensed take, re: his thoughts and yours, is that Homo sapiens sapiens is a truly failed species, which i too tend to closely concur with. What i might add, due to this Curriculum of the West, is that those who seek power and influence, be they in the political arena, corporate/capitalist realms, or particularly those behind the masks (such as NSA, CIA, etc., who essentially are calling the shots for all), are, deep down (perhaps not even that deep, more like the most shallow of shallowness), not only heirarchically driven because of this disequalibrium, but not worthy of inclusion in such an extraordinary World. Re: they truly are evil, demanding we must adhere to their staggeringly insane pathologies, or else. It’s all…unbalanced, which is why i have come to balance my life to the extreme, with creative beauty, to offer an ever-deepening reciprocity for these gifts of breaths.

  2. Rade says:

    I concur with Relentless, this is an outstanding post, with a great deal to chew over. Bram’s term “empty hierarchies” is brilliant and gives expression to something I’ve tried to articulate to myself for a long time. A complete egalitarianism has always seemed to me as unnatural as the dizzying web of hierarchy that we live in now, so the distinction between an “empty hierarchy” and one based on kinship (or relationship) is very helpful.
    Obviously as a species we have a long way to go to correct the balance towards kinship and an equilibrium between distinction making and distinction dissolving, but it is encouraging to see someone writing about equilibrium as a stated goal (some writers give the distinct impression that they would like to tear down every normal natural human distinction in their effort to purge us of the sins of modernity). While it is hard to hold out hope, for the sake of my children and their future, I pray this path toward equilibrium can be found before we destroy ourselves.

    • kulturcritic says:

      I believe Marvin thinks equilibrium is recoverable. Perhaps that is why he calls his work the Recovery of the West. I also think he demonstrates a personal equilibrium that I admire. Thanks for your comments, Rade.

  3. Edd Writer says:

    You didn’t like my comment ?

  4. Malthus says:

    So very well written and makes all of the very good points concerning the path that we have taken and I always wonder why we came this way. Between looking through the dictionary to make certain my definition of so many words you use are similar to my meanings of them. One thing really stood out to me. “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.” now that you expose it for what it really is Sandy it boggles the mind to think that so many of us were so conditioned as to not see the truth behind the curtain and were the constructors of said constitution that clever? Probably deviously so. I am going to need to reread everything you have written today as it was so well laid out. The why of it all still mystifies me.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Hi Malthus – I am sure Marvin is as gratified by your pleasure with the post as I am. Well, we are conditioned through thousands of years and countless generations to respond to the magic – the art and logic – in short, the language of the Curriculum. That is why when we read things like “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” (The Declaration) we unthinkingly understand what they are meant to express; and we never question the logic of their construction or why it was necessary to articulate them.

      • relentless says:

        Right on Malthus. i too am gratified by the lay of, the employment of, words in this post, from both Sandy and Bram. It is falling well into my particular suggestion that we must contaminate The Kings’ Languages, in whatever way necessary, one that matters, that overrides the conventional sneaky-pete use by the ‘masters of deceptions.’ One that works for us and the planet, be they new impassioned, precise words, or refined definitions, or redefined if required. It was the author Tom Robbins who noticed the contradiction in the Preamble To Said Constitution “In order to form a more perfect Union.” Something like, “So, apparently it isn’t perfect, or if it’s perfect, how can it be more perfect? i can’t recall exactly how he wrote it (one of his novels), however, he stated it ‘perfectly.’ Bram’s writing exposes the utter incompetence of the English language and the continuing price being borne by the acceptees of the charade.

        • relentless says:

          Out in the fabricated world today…spied (ha!) a guy with a t-shirt: Picture of an amerikan flag on a pie with about 40% of the pie gone. The caption: ‘Taken By Socialism’ (i’d think the creator of this t-s might better have written ‘Eaten By Socialism.’ Whatever.) Wouldn’t a better t-shirt be: ‘Eaten By Every Ism’ with only microscopic crumbs scattered about? Back to the Authentic World.

  5. Brutus says:

    I am pleased to see this post, which is your best explication yet of the Curriculum of the West. It’s also good that you cite your source clearly, as I’ve unwittingly written in these comments and at my own blog that the term is yours, not Marvin Bram’s (no doubt the oversight is mine). With each week’s new post, it amazes me how well the complex of ideas you have been unpacking fit with those I’ve been absorbing over the years from my own sources. I’ve always thought our disagreements minor. In the spirit of deepening discussion, however, let me bring forward a couple things.

    /rant on

    The distinction between distinction-making and distinction-dissolving (isn’t the irony there glaring?) is something I’ve been developing at my blog (are you cribbing from me like I am from you?), especially as I read and blog about Iain McGilchrist’s book. Indeed, that’s the core of his thesis: the analytical left hemisphere is riding roughshod over the synthetic right. So as modern people in possession of or possessed by ego consciousness, we inevitably discuss these matters by analyzing, drawing distinctions, and believing that we’ve figured out something useful. That may be so, but it repeats the same foundational error you observe with the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. However, I don’t find agency in the worldview we’ve inherited — the intentional fallacy at work — any more than in the notion that the Framers/Founders had the foresight to realize they were crafting a document that would enable so well venal manipulations of the moneyed elite then or later. Nor indeed do I think that those monied elite necessarily know that they’re raining disaster down upon us. They may be well-enough-educated people, but it’s been a long time since being educated crossed over from a broadly informed, liberal, philosophical view of the world where a Ph.D. (literally a Doctor of Philosophy) might have meant something to a science- or business-oriented professional degree enabling mere money-making. Anything other is considered useless.

    And you can’t really blame people for playing the game with some gusto, since it’s the only game in town now that virtually all meaningful alternatives have been extinguished. Frankly, I blame Robin Leach, who was among the first in recent memory to legitimize what was before sometimes regarded as a rather crass, disgusting display of opulence. If only all those lifestyle accoutrements weren’t made so appealing: flashy cars, mansions with their handsome appointments, travel and wardrobes afforded the wealthy, the plethora of shiny screens nearly all of us enjoy, etc. It’s easy to have one’s head turned by the obvious material benefits of our age without there needing to be evil geniuses manipulating all and everything. Too bad the moral, ethical, and spiritual costs are so well hidden within the glamor and bling. If ever there were an alternative tradition to warn us of such heedless loss, it should have been the Church (no one church or religion in particular intended here). However, despite numerous heretical gestures to the contrary, it was eventually corrupted by power and riches just like every other fragile human institution, so it gets the other portion of my blame.

    Last, vestigial remnants of fusion are many, not least of which are the arts — at least when they’re not bound up in vacuous celebrity. More commonly, however, fusion is found in populist behaviors of the mob ranging from professional team sports, racehorse politics, and from time to time, grassroots uprisings such as OWS. The embedded character of such phenomena, where the adherent/participant loses him- or herself in the midst of the action, is a clear exception to the egoistic character of instrumental reality we share like so many atoms whirling around a mostly empty nucleus. Frankly, it matters little whether one’s adopted metaphor is particle physics, biology, cosmology, or some other. Distinguishing constituent parts from wholes is what we do and who we are until at last we rejoin the void from whence we all came.

    /rant off

    • kulturcritic says:

      Ah yes! The eternal void! And, no; I never ‘crib’ from anyone without a reference. LOL. The fact is that music is transporting, and can indeed take you out of yourself and into some mode of fusion with the ‘Other’. There are other cultural doors that open to the outside as well. But, many modern examples are weak substitutes for real fusion. Glad you like the posting, Brutus. sandy

  6. pixelwhiplash says:

    So much depth here. Malthus and Brutus reference the Constitution. I am afraid that particular parchment has been in the revisionist library for a while now. Initial intent is muddied horribly and only Orwell would understand the implications of it now.
    Why is it that areas of the world when under the stewardship of indigenous peoples, was a whole microcosm that functioned in balance? I’m certain “distinction making” wasn’t on any agenda then. As always a great post Sandy. A crystallization of complex ideas. Thank you.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Thank you, Pixel… And yes, “under revision” is a good characterization of the fate of the US social contract. Although, if we keep it in perspective, legal documents, like religious documents, have always been open to a revised hermeneutic; this is why jurists and legislators always leave some wiggle room (vagueness) in the text; that gives them flexibility and staying power; they can be manipulated just by the application of a new interpretive framework (i.e., direction).

  7. Nice and concise clarification post, I also think this would be a good introduction for new readers.

    On a related note, have you read this week’s Truthdig article from Chris Hedges?

    It is highly relevant to this week’s post and I just read them back to back, their consubstantiality apparent. 😉

    • kulturcritic says:

      Thanks VL – yeah; I just read Hedges. Seems like he’s been peaking at my posts. LOL. And, an asylum it surely is!! What I find curious about Hedges in this article is that he wants to believe there is a better way and that it comes to us from an indigenous past that we systemically have sought to destroy. On the other hand, his usual tray of goodies suggests a reconstitution of Empire, only a more kind and gentle one. So he leaves me perplexed. But, he has been in recent dialogue with Derrick Jensen, so maybe his compass is turning a bit in the radicalized direction. LOL. sandy

  8. Dandy says:

    Very interesting post! It has certainly given me a lot to think about. I hadn’t previously run across the assertion that syllogism lies at the heart of Western consciousness. That adds a different perspective to the traditional dichotomy between tribal and civilized (urban?) social structures. It is almost impossible to argue that tribal societies are not the more ecological alternative. It is also easy to see that totemic consciousness offers a powerful social safety net and psychological security. On the other hand, this comes at the cost of personal identity and both physical and philosophical mobility. My primary reaction is to find the tribal model to be claustrophobic, realizing, of course, that those for whom it is a natural social paradigm don’t experience it that way any more than fish feel suffocated by water.

    I am an artist, so the cornerstone of my world view is aesthetic. I’m also an intensely urban person. I am deeply conscious of the ways in which urban western civilization falls tragically short of its aesthetic potential, as well as being ecologically destructive and unsustainable. In spite of that, I view the majority of the accomplishments contributed to the human “reality” by Western Civilization to be good. Not being aware of any prior examples of tribal societies that have even come close to the grandeur and sophistication of modern urban society, I’m left wondering if the psychological and ecological benefits of totemic consciousness and the cultural sophistication and technological accomplishments of western Civilization are mutually exclusive.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Welcome Dandy! I would not wish you to feel suffocated; but I imagine your sense of tribal life as claustrophobic and lacking in personal identity is a reflex reaction of that hypertrophied sense of self which you carry around (like the rest of us), built up by generations of inculcation to the curriculum. Of course, if we look at the tribal consciousness in light of the issue of fusion or participation, then the sense of identity in totemic culture becomes greatly enhanced and expanded, well beyond what we today experience with all of our cultural artifices and technological prosthetics. I personally have been the beneficiary of modern medicine, so I have a hard time turning a deaf ear to the miracles of modern science. However, I also recognize that these treasures of the West are purchased at a high price to me, to my society and to the global environment at large. I also do not think it fair to label the totemic model as limiting in terms of physical or philosophical mobility. Of course the H/G tribes were de facto mobile, as were its members; and living one another’s lives was tantamount to extreme psychological and theoretical mobility, I would imagine. But the real question is: what do you mean by mobility? Many of the images you have conjured up: claustrophobic, suffocated, lack of mobility… suggest a very modern view of freedom.

    • Malthus says:

      “the cultural sophistication and technological accomplishments of western Civilization.” Wow, a true urbanite has joined the forum. Welcome. It will certainly be interesting to read your take on currant events and all the comments here.

  9. derekthered says:

    i’ll see your icarus and raise you some synthetic DNA
    “It’s a breakthrough, a beautiful paper in the realm of synthetic biology.”
    “It shows that you don’t have to stick with the ribose and deoxyribose backbones of RNA and DNA in order to have transmittable, heritable, and evolvable information,”
    isn’t this just peachy, who knows what some mad scientist somewhere is cooking up.

    of course exploitation and hoarding is an easy sell to a species that spent several million years scratching to survive, piece of cake. but that’s not what worries me, oh no……………………
    it’s the internalization of the capitalist ethos which worries me, a sort of mass stockholm syndrome, well mixed with the false zen of equivalence; but hey, “it’s all good”.

    please note how the scientist refers to the brand new XNA, it’s just information, easily manipulated and capitalized upon. we have lost our collective minds here in the west, that’s what’s up.

    • kulturcritic says:

      “…of course exploitation and hoarding is an easy sell to a species that spent several million years scratching to survive…”
      Red, you crack me up. LOL What an image.

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