Mothers of Invention: Further Reflection on Modern Idols

When was it that we adopted a perspective that took the world in all its abundance to be cold, dead mattermere objects of manipulation and control?

A French court on Thursday ordered an investigation into new IMF chief Christine Lagarde’s role in a much-criticized $400 million arbitration deal in favor of a controversial tycoon from a state-owned bank in 2008.”  Looks like the Ice Princess is following in the steps of another famous French lady.  Having made off with money from the people’s bank for her wealthy client, she must have thought, “well, gee, if the people have to go without bread, let them eat cake.”

“Stocks closed out their worst week in more than two years on Friday in a volatile session that saw the major indexes whip back and forth…” Looks like the boyz on the street are getting nervous!!

“The United States lost its sterling credit rating. Credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s on Friday lowered the nation’s AAA rating for the first time since granting it in 1917…”  So the financial meltdown of the empire continues apace.

That which seems to be newsworthy is not worth discussing.  That which is worth discussing seems not to be newsworthy.


It is broadly believed there is an inherent structure to the universe.  We take for granted that it is simply a matter for scientists and other experts to discover this structure and thereby understand the laws that govern both the natural and human worlds. However, it has become increasingly evident that no such structure exists; that there is no fixed design simply given independent of our perception.

Even those regularities that we might assign as demonstrating some inherent pattern may themselves only be a function of the screens we have chosen to cast over the world in order to fit it into a specific framework, usually in order to manipulate things according to the ends we wish to achieve. Moreover, such “ends” are customarily prefigured in the very frameworks chosen.  Even cosmic regularities – those periodicities we might identify as naturally occurring – are, in this light, only contingent patterns, resulting from the unique lens we have chosen to look through.

The structures thereby established are not discovered, so much as they are created; and they are variable, changing with the conceptual screen one chooses or the lens one unwittingly looks through. This has happened throughout the history of philosophy and science.  In fact, the so-called “laws of nature” that our various sciences have “discovered” have been overturned and revised one century (or generation) after another by means of applying yet a new set of screens. From the early pre-Socratics to Neils Bohr, through Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Einstein and beyond, initial hypotheses about the nature of the physical world have led to new conclusions, abstraction to further experimentation to new abstraction, itself leading to further hypothesis formation, only to be turned into another law and then overturned upon yet further experimentation.

Obviously, there are culturally variable screens influencing the specific views of diverse nations, peoples, and societies as well.  And certainly a religious screen may provide quite a different worldview than a quantum physics screen, for example.  There are any numbers of lenses that have developed over the history of human culture. One might even surmise that our primitive forebears, our pre-civilized ancestors, also perceived the world through a unique set of lenses as well. And certainly we have what we might call evidence of specific screens regarding kinship, cosmology, and man’s relation to the “natural world” from that long forgotten past.  But we cannot really reconstitute or re-inhabit that world quite as the pre-civilized mind did (see Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry).

In short, we are born into a world of screens that from early childhood we learn to accept as givens.  These screens themselves become the Idols of our belief.  There are certain Idols that are foundational to the way most modern peoples thus see the world. And if we refuse to grant them legitimacy, then we wind up in the rather unenviable position of the designated village idiot, outcast, madman, witch, or if lucky, genius.

Owen Barfield asks: What was this view of reality, “the phenomena of nature at the Darwinian moment in the middle of the nineteenth century.” They were objects. They took their place in a “mechanical model” of the universe created by a collective representation over which “literalness reigned supreme.” Dead nature, mindless matter remains the dominant idol in our collective representations to this very day.

Stepping back momentarily, there emerged in the thinking of some of the earliest civilizations a new screening tool, early on perfected by the Greeks, and recast by legislators, scientists, and other specialists down through the ages – syllogistic reasoning. It was through the syllogism that “social laws were made and natural laws were made or ‘discovered'” (Bram, The Recovery of the West).  This signaled the rise of historical consciousness, (future ‘effects’ invariably following after prior ’causes’ sequentially on a unilinear timeline); and this logic became embedded as a lynchpin of the experimental method in modern scientific research, laying the foundation for the ideal (Idol) of objective empirical knowledge as our only source of truth.  Describing the impact of this new Idol of modern scientific progress – objective empirical knowledge – molecular biologist and Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod wrote in the 1970’s:

By a single stroke it claimed to sweep away the tradition of a hundred thousand years which had become one with human nature itself.  It wrote an end to the animist covenant between man and nature, leaving nothing in place of that precious bond but an anxious quest in a frozen universe of solitude (Paul Feyerabend, Conquest Of Abundance, pp 5-6).

In truth, this new screen did not reveal the phenomena themselves, but rather changed them through abstraction and experimentation, imposing structure on the given (whatever that is); such abstraction and experimentation (manipulation) has further been destructive of the world as given. “The questions are thus to what extent this destruction helped humanity (or a privileged part of it), how much damage was done, and what is the balance” (Feyerabend, 6). And yet, even now modern physics continues to overturn its own most sacred Idols, those “laws of nature” that we take for granted even today (see Julian Barbour, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics).

But then the practical question arises, how do we raise and educate our children when collectively we have forgotten that we believe in Idols?  Do we simply present the product of our screens as absolute truth, and then send our youth off to war (or on peacekeeping missions) to enforce our views on non-believers globally?  Or do we acknowledge that the Idols we have created and cling to (whether ontological, religious, scientific, or political) are not necessarily the only way of inhabiting a world, and that we may learn from others what has been buried beneath our own taken-for-granted assumptions, including our own hidden agendas? It is a personal, political, and philosophical question.  And as the perfect storm of global collapse continues apace, today it may be the most urgent question of all.

19 Responses to Mothers of Invention: Further Reflection on Modern Idols

  1. Disaffected says:

    >But then the practical question arises, how do we raise and educate our children when collectively we have forgotten that we believe in Idols?<

    Brings to mind a conversation I had just this past Friday with a friend of mine, who is what I would term quasi religious, regarding religion. I told her that I thought indoctrinating a child in religion is tantamount to child abuse, since a young child is so highly suggestible and likely to blindly obey authority. Needless to say, what followed was a rather heated "discussion" that had to be cut short for the sake of the friendship. But, as I reminded her, Christianity was itself once a mere "cult," and the only difference now is that it enjoys state approval. She then switched her argument to that of efficacy, which did at least make a bit more sense strictly from an argumentation point of view. I then contemplated the task of arguing the efficacy of Christianity (or any religion in general) vs. its many documented downsides (our current Middle East oil crusade) and realized the futility of pursuing the subject any further.

    As you say kC, it's not so much that we all believe in idols – that's a given – but rather, the fact that we've forgotten and now deny that we believe in idols in the first place, and that we place those idols on a lofty pedestal immune from critical thought and logic. And if history has shown us anything, it's that as comforting as those idols may be in the short term, in the long run they always lead us astray. It's going to be interesting watching the faithful cling all the more tenaciously to their idols during the coming collapse. Certainly those who who have cast their lot with government and corporate authoritarian power structures are in for a huge disappointment. That'll likely leave religion to fill the void as it always does, although with organized religion's recent and ongoing alliance with right wing political groups in the U.S. you have to wonder how that's going to turn out as well.

    The most crushing and dangerous blow of all however (and one that's likely to take a while to play out, given the amount of capital the current power structure has invested in it), will be the smashing of the exponential growth based free market capitalism idol and its closely allied twin, American Exceptionalism, which are both now clearly in their death throws. These will be especially traumatic, in that the world has been sold these two false idols in the complete absence of any competing narrative since the fall of Soviet Union, and the fact that socialism (or anything even remotely resembling it), as the only likely alternative in the short term at least, was so completely discredited in the process. Americans, as we're already seeing, simply won't accept anyone telling them they’re not history’s special people, a fact that’s likely closely aligned with Christian notions of the elect or Christ’s chosen one’s etc. I simply cannot imagine any of this ending any other way than badly for all involved.

    • Disaffected says:

      Sorry, forgot to include what is really the (most recent) telling link and support for my accusation above:

      At Rally, Perry Gives No Hints About 2012

      TX Gov Rick Perry, devilishly handsome and GWB wannabe, is now apparently aligning himself as the next heir apparent to the GOP mantle – the Christian right. Word to Rick, The GOP has apparently long since found their heir apparent in the person of one Barrack Obama, who has the double advantage of nominally posing as a “democrat” (LOL, remember them?), thus taking the heat off of the “ruling” party for what are clearly his “ruling party” policies; and ALSO posing as a “minority,” in the process, all the better to fool all those foolish liberals.

      Poor Rick. Or, was that the strategy all along? We who live in the “hall of mirrors” 24/7 now can never know, can we? No one I know (and I live in a bastion of conservative hysteria) is mouthing a word about Rick Perry, so I’m guessing this is all just so much media hysteria, as it always is. Nonetheless, the early conservative links to what amounts to religious cults should be troubling for all involved.


    • kulturcritic says:

      DA – critical thought and logic may themselves be Idols, no?

    • Disaffected says:

      In the “out of the mouths of babes category” category comes this on The Today Show today from one of the parents of one of the Seal Team Six casualties: Aaron (a Christian, go figure) believed that the US is in a war with fundamentalist Islam dating back hundreds, if not thousands of years, for the very survival of our country. What can you say to that? Such fundamentalist hard line attitudes are at the core of the current US “War on Terror,” which, in the interests of truth in advertising, should be relabeled the US Fundamentalist Christian Crusade to Eradicate Islam and Lay Claim to All of the World’s Remaining Oil Supplies. Of course marketing would need to buff that up a little to facilitate a catchy acronym, but you get the point.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Religion is certainly a strong instigator. Look at the crusades, the jihads, the holy wars… There is nothing men won’t do for their gods and their idols!!

  2. Dean says:

    I enjoy your writings but as a tradesman I find myself reading over some sentences before I get the point!! Haha simple minds make me laugh!! I have been reading about peak oil and the collapse and recently discovered non- duality which seems to help explain some of what is going on and what it means for me and my family. Life goes on( until I’m gone!!
    Take care and keep up the good work!!

    • kulturcritic says:

      Dean – I also must reread what I write sometimes before I get the point 😉 At least you have real skills as a tradesman. I am just a sloppy wordsmith. Thanks for reading. sandy

  3. kulturcritic says:

    I guess this post was just too damn difficult. No one wants to weigh in. Oh well!! sandy

    • Ron Greenstein says:

      Sandy, I have been enjoying reading your blog. You are very thoughtful, open-minded, and sincere. This quote got me to offer a short discourse:
      Owen Barfield asks: What was this view of reality, “the phenomena of nature at the Darwinian moment in the middle of the nineteenth century.” They were objects. They took their place in a “mechanical model” of the universe created by a collective representation over which “literalness reigned supreme.” Dead nature, mindless matter remains the dominant idol in our collective representations to this very day.


      Meher Baba

      No miracle is an exception to the existing laws of the
      universe. It is an overt result of the impersonal working or
      conscious use of the established laws of the inner spheres.
      It is called a miracle because it cannot be explained by the
      known laws of the gross world. Here, known laws are
      superimposed by unknown laws; it is not a case of chaos or

      There are many examples of miracles. Giving sight to the
      blind and kindred achievements are brought under the category
      of miracles. They do not set aside the laws of the universe
      but are the expressions of laws and forces, unknown and
      inaccessible to most human beings. There are some persons
      who, through the use of their supernatural powers, can keep
      their bodies alive for hundreds of years although they are
      not necessarily spiritually advanced. In the same way, the
      lingering aura of a saint may work miracles from his burial

      The scope of miracles is very wide. Even the animal world is
      not exempt from the possibility of miracles. Though mammals
      such as porpoises and other animals do not have a fully
      developed subtle body, there is in the subtle world an
      equivalent or counterpart of their gross forms. The
      rudimentary subtle matrix, which has yet to develop into a
      definite and functionally self-sufficient subtle form, can
      still serve some purposes and become a medium for performance
      of miracles. Stories of sorcerers who cause schools of
      porpoises to come from the open sea to shore for a native
      feast are within the bounds of probability. But all the realm
      of the supernatural, occult, miraculous and magic (black or
      white) must be regarded as having no spiritual value in itself.

      Occult phenomena like stigmata, telekinesis (effecting the
      flight of objects such as a communion wafer through the air),
      elongation, elevation, etc., may amuse, astound or overpower
      people. But they cannot bring about spiritual healing or
      uplift, which is the real thing that matters. They are just
      an illustration of the supersession of ordinary and known
      laws of nature by the supernatural and unknown laws of the
      inner spheres. The curious might very well occupy their minds
      with these things, but they are best relegated to the
      background as insignificant.

      The real lover of Truth passes by these things without
      becoming entangled with any of them. He cannot afford to be
      distracted or diverted from his _real_ objective, viz.,
      attaining union which God and releasing the radiance of His
      purity and love.

      BEAMS FROM MEHER BABA, pp. 34-37
      Copyright 1958 Sufism Reoriented, Inc.

  4. Michele Benoit says:


    Yes, the post is difficult, but far from impossible. I’d wager that the low traffic reflects a nation in the throes of mid-August vacation.

    But then the practical question arises, how do we raise and educate our children
    when collectively we have forgotten that we believe in Idols?

    As a parent and a science teacher, I’ve thought about this question a lot. What do I
    present? How do I present information, interpretations, structures? The Idols, or the
    screens we apply–a particularly apt term given our current obsession with
    screens–reside deep within us.

    Each of us carries the Idols of generations past, passed down by parents, teachers, religious leaders, government leaders and popular culture. Sometimes the inculcation is deliberate, and more often, the messages are simply being repeated, unexamined, unchallenged, below the level of consciousness. There are so many screens, which when laid one upon the other, obscure far more than they reveal. Those implanted when we are children are deeply rooted, tightly held, and often out of our conscious identification–like seeing someone disappear around a corner out of the
    corner of your eye. To recognize them and detach from them takes deliberate effort and
    mindfulness. The more we practice this, the more we discover!

    If we are able to remember that we believe in Idols, what do we teach our children? What do we replace the Idols with? What I sense among my students, and even within my self, is a growing sense of detachment and disconnect; that we are relying more and more on external, manufactured views and opinions to give our lives structure rather than actively engaging in the world. There is also, among many, a great distance from Nature, even here in the willy wags of Maine.We are boxed in and walled off from direct perceptions of Nature, from each other and from ourselves. Okay, I’ve wandered in thought here, for sure, but what do we offer our children? How do we begin to cultivate the many means of perception and connection that will allow us to open the boxes?

    Thanks for letting me wander and muse.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Dear Michele-

      It is so good to hear from you again. I hope you received the books ok. We are now back in Siberia.

      To your point, I think you hint at the answer in your own discussion. You say, of the Idols: “To recognize them and detach from them takes deliberate effort and mindfulness.” Now, if the Idols themselves are a result of layers of screens and other lenses that separate us from the phenomena, then to detach from the Idols, requires that we re-engage our senses with the earthly sensuous. But, this is a tall request; and really cannot be accomplished purely and simply. But you can keep encouraging your students to feel, taste, touch, hear, and yes, see what they are part of… their flesh, the flesh of the world. We cannot return to a pristine state of primitive participation in the world (although some drugs are known to help – but not for students); but we can learn to experience the intertwining of the lived-body-world without attempting to label, rationalize or categorize the experience. Silence can help. Please keep in touch here. best, sandy

      • Michele says:

        Sandy, thanks so much for asking. The books arrived almost immediately, and have been shared and read. The concept of the ‘ordinary’ you describe resonates strongly with me, and I’m trying to learn to ‘see’ the ordinary and live in it.

        Yes, too, on re-engaging our senses with the earthly sensuous. One of my efforts this year will be to help cultivate sensual perception, by deliberately focusing on the senses, by simply going outdoors, and, through silence–a condition that can create uncertainly and a kind of unease, but if allowed to be, will also allow other ‘senses’ to emerge. Small steps over time.

        Our modern experiences–knowledge, awareness, ego-consciousness–disallows that return to the oneness of participation with all aspects of the world. Sometimes this creates a dichotomy of the mind, as we move in one world and perceive in another. Yet, when there are moments of oneness, when we are so totally engaged in all aspects of the moment–perhaps you experience this in Siberia–linear time disappears and there are no boundaries between you and the boulder, the pine tree, the frogs, the wind–I think we catch a glimpse of that pristine state.

        Thanks for your bookshelf page. One you may know, too, is The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram. He includes a section on Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

        Thanks again for your books and for the conversation.

  5. Ken says:

    As a pseudo-scientist (retired engineer) I recall reading articles many years ago in which the authors would postulate that the Universe is the way it is because we are looking at it. At the time I discarded such as obvious nonsense; however, your article refreshed my memory of those articles and expanded my conceptual abilities such that I think I now understand that which they were attempting to impart. No human has the capacity to completely examine any facet of “nature” with an unbiased mind. As children we lack sufficient understanding to comprehend that which we observe and as “educated” adults the very process of becoming educated biases our observational processes via the screens/filters of which you speak.

    Idols will require considerable more mulling over to make sense to me. Are our symbolic tools idols?

    • kulturcritic says:

      Hey Ken

      Thanks for tuning in and speaking up. I am glad you found the content refreshing. I am no engineer, but I taught many engineers at the Colorado School of Mines many years ago. In Owen Barfield’s discussion, Idols are collective representations (of reality) that we mistake for objective conditions of the world as given. The phenomena we see before us today are such collective representations because they have been constructed through a series of abstractions whereby we erect an objectively conceived world from which we have become alienated by thought and word. It was a process that began with the transformation of consciousness that emerged with the transition from pre-civilized to civilized (urban) living. This transformation was accompanied by a shift in thought, language, logic and human involvement with (or disengagement from) the natural world. The subsequent representations of the real are Idols precisely because they are without substance, they are hollow abstractions of an abstracting process of objectivization… turning the living connection between man and world into a cold vacuum of objects floating independently in empty space-time (another construct or Idol of modern thought). I would encourage you to read Barfield’s book, Saving The Appearances: A Study In Idolatry. I know you will find it absorbing and mind stretching. Please stick around Ken. best, sandy

  6. Michael Mott says:

    Sandy, thoughtful commentary indeed, I am here for the first time. I do follow a couple of other blogs one that you also follow. I am not a teacher although I have worked in the realm of teaching in non orthodox teaching environments. One as an educational exhibit designer and as a technician in a Canadian University. I am now living in a rural landscape and learning to grow food while also trying to understand the world around me. I have a lot of questions about how we as a species will fare over the next few decades, I am not very optimistic about it all. The older I get the more hollow so much of what transpires seems to be to me, and yet I engage in some frivolous activities (various forms of model building [not war machines] watercolor painting [landscape] and writing [poetry]) I say frivolous because I feel so helpless sometimes with regard to the global picture.
    I like the way you have described the screens through which we observe our environment, my wife and I were sitting at the dining room table yesterday lunchtime looking at a freshly pulled carrot and musing about the wonders of nature and how such a delicious food came from such a tiny seed+water+soil+sunlight and in all likelihood something else that I have no way of describing or knowing.


    • kulturcritic says:

      Michael – the activities are not frivolous, if they help you express your feelings. Sometimes we do things because they help release pent up energies that have been supressed by the demands of civilized (capitalist) life. And I know what you mean about the carrot. An even bigger, nourishing wonder/amusement is mushroom hunting in a forest. All you do is go looking, and there they are. But you need to be careful about which ones you eat. Here in Siberia, there are also a number of wild berries that grow on the forest floor; they call them Kostinika and Brusnika, by name. They are small and red, and tartly sweet, with lots of vitamins. The interesting thing about foraging is that you needn’t DO anything but look. Nature does it all by itself. Keep up the hobbies; and keep honing skills for a smaller planet – gardening, hunting, gathering, fishing, and anything else needed to survive or barter. stick with us, best, sandy

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