The World that Inhabits Our Mind

This campaign season hasn’t done a whole lot for me.

Sanders is interesting and all. Trump can be amusing or, for some, outright scary. But I just can’t get excited about the campaigns themselves, even as I like to think about the demographic and public opinion shifts.

It can feel like nothing more than a political game. No matter who wins, most Americans will lose. The system is designed that way. Change won’t happen through elections.

It goes back to the idea that there has to be a revolution of mind (or Mind) before there can be a revolution of politics and society. That is the main reason I care about this campaign season even in the slightest. There are ideas on the table that were formerly verboten from mainstream reporting and discussion. Polls show that the public mind is shifting direction, even if not to a revolutionary degree.

My concern goes far beyond mere ideas and their corresponding rhetoric. I’m interested in what are the conditions, what is the paradigm and reality tunnel that make our social order seem inevitable. And what would shake that social order and cause new possibilities to arise.

Humanity has been grappling with our situation for quite a while now. That became most clear with the Enlightenment and so the thinkers of that era get oversized credit and blame. Part of what happened in the Enlightenment is that ongoing trends finally got pushed to their extremes with the end of the ancien regime and the emergence of colonial imperialism, corporatist capitalism, etc.

A new way of living formed. With it, there was a new frame in which to perceive and think about the world. This was most clear with the enclosure of the Commons and eviction of the serfs from their land. The early modern revolutionary era really was just the coming to terms with a post-feudalism world. This new world required an entirely new way of being in the world. This had been developing for a long time, but it finally hit a tipping point.

We live in the ruins of what came before. It is hard for many of us to comprehend what that old order was. The mindset of pre-modern people is alien to us. Despite the signs of the old order all around us, the entire world has been transformed. The former context of meaning is gone.

This isn’t just something in our minds, but literally in the world. We’ve created social system that has become disconnected from so much of what once was familiar to humans. Let me give an example.

Most people today live in ecosystem deserts. We have created a dead world. It was a slow process and so imperceptible at any given moment. The destruction of biological diversity has been going on for centuries, millennia even. Some of the actual deserts of the world were once thriving ecosystems before agriculture decimated them. Maybe this transition had something to do with the slow demise of animism and the rise of monotheism (and other Axial Age religions). It is hard for us to perceive the world as animate with life because we have surrounded ourselves by that which is non-living. Our loss of faith in animism might not be because we are more rational than ancient people, but because we have simply lost the capacity to think that way. Our minds and experience is accordingly impoverished.

Our world has been shrunk down to a human size. The encounter with the wild has become rare. Even being confronted by the larger cosmos has become uncommon, beyond an occasional NASA photo. Most people today live in highly lit and smoggy urban areas, and so most stars are no longer visible. There was an earthquake on the West Coast back in the 1990s. One of the major cities, maybe Los Angeles, had all of its lights go out. The police had a mass influx of calls asking about the strange lights that occurred after the earthquake and what were they. After conferring with some scientists, they realized that these urban residents had seen the full starry sky for the first time in their lifetimes.

For all of human existence until the past few generations, the stars dominated human experience. It was the basis of so much religion and the bedrock of human inquiry. The stars in their predictable patterns helped promote the earliest mathematical and scientific thinking. It also simply created the sense of being small beings in a vast cosmos. We’ve almost entirely lost that. No wonder that we simultaneously lost the way of being in the world that went along with it.

We moderns are obsessed with our own humanity. Everything about our confined worldview is dominated by human society. Few people, especially in the developed countries, remain in rural areas and fewer still continue in the ancient tradition of farming. We moderns don’t tend to even have much sense of deep roots in a particular place, even cities, as we move around so much. The idea of being connected to the world around us has become foreign.

Karl Marx had the notion of species-being. The basic idea is that what we produce creates a particular kind of society and shapes human nature. We produce the kind of person that is needed for the world we bring into existence. And so the kind of person that is produced is incapable of seeing beyond the social and material world that produced him. We build our own prisons, even as there is hope for us to build new worlds to inhabit and new ways of being.

We now live in a capitalist society. We are all consumer-citizens. It’s the only world we know. Our minds are ruled by the spectacle of mass politics and mass media. We live our lives through the filter of technology. And our minds are held in check by an interlocking chain of ideological rhetoric and propaganda, advertising and corporate branding. We are kept constantly busy, preoccupied, and distracted.

We can’t imagine it being any other way. But that was true of every other society before us. We can only imagine something new when the old is already in decline and losing its power over us. There has to be a shift already taking root in our collective being before we can begin to think and act differently.

6 thoughts on “The World that Inhabits Our Mind

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