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The Great Disembedding
on the origins of the Axial Age and the future of ideology
“Confucius and Lao-Tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo Ti, Chuang Tse, Lieh Tzu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialism, scepticism and nihilism; in Iran, Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance from Elijah by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers—Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato,—of the tragedians, of Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India and the West.” (Karl Jaspers)
Epistemic status: Absolute certitude. Rock-hard evidence, air-tight arguments, white-hot memes.
The Axial Age refers to broad changes in religious and philosophical thought that occurred in a variety of locations from about the 8th to the 3rd century BC. According to Jaspers, during this period, universalizing modes of thought appeared in Persia, India, China, the Levant, and the Greco-Roman world, in a striking parallel development, without any obvious admixture between these disparate cultures…
Individual thinkers each laid spiritual foundations within a framework of a changing social environment. Jaspers argues that the characteristics appeared under similar political circumstances: China, India, the Middle East and the Occident each comprised multiple small states engaged in internal and external struggles. The three regions all gave birth to, and then institutionalized, a tradition of travelling scholars, who roamed from city to city to exchange ideas. (Wikipedia)
Nathan Gardels’ essay “Religious Imagination as the Future Unfolds” has an interesting passage describing the philosopher Charles Taylor’s understanding of what happened in the Axial Age.
For Charles Taylor, the first Axial Age resulted from the “great disembedding” of the person from isolated communities and their natural environment, where circumscribed awareness had been limited to the sustenance and survival of the tribe guided by oral narrative myth. The lifting out from a closed-off world, according to Taylor, was enabled by the arrival of written language — the stored memories of the first cloud technology. This attainment of symbolic competency capacitated an “interiority of reflection” on the basis of abiding texts that created a platform for shared meanings beyond one’s immediate circumstances and local narratives.
Long story very short, this “transcendence” in turn led to the possibility of general philosophies, monotheistic religions and broad-based ethical systems. The critical self-distancing element of disembedded reflection further evolved into what the sociologist Robert Bellah called “theoretic culture,” to scientific discovery and the Enlightenment that spawned modernity. For Bellah, “Plato completed the transition to the Axial Age” with the idea of theoria that “enables the mind to ‘view’ the great and the small in themselves abstracted from their concrete manifestations.”
So for Taylor the transition to the Axial age represents a sort of philosophical phase shift brought upon by writing and its ability to “disembed” systems of thought and render them available for reflection. In The Gnostic Religion, Hans Jonas describes a similar phase shift in the spiritual doctrines of the Hellenistic period, however Jonas believes that the transition had less to do with writing and more to do with the evolution of the socio-political landscape. Jonas’ view is much more similar to Jaspers with its emphasis on “changing social conditions” and “internal and external struggles”.
To Jonas, Alexander’s conquest of the East (334-323 B.C.) “marks a turning point in the history of the ancient world” because it did two things: (1) it spawned the the supra-national Hellenistic culture, a larger cultural unity than had ever previously existed, and (2) it displaced a great number of peoples from their local environments.
In particular, the uprooting and transplantation of whole populations had two significant effects. On the one hand, it favored the disengagement of cultural contents from their native soil, their abstraction into the transmissible form of teachings, and their consequently becoming available as elements in a cosmopolitan interchange of ideas.
To take another classic example from the Bible, the Babylonian exile forced the Jews to develop that aspect of their religion whose validity transcended the particular Palestinian conditions…The uniqueness of the Jewish case notwithstanding, certain parallels to these developments can be discerned elsewhere in the political disintegration of the East or can be inferred from the later course of events. Thus, after the overthrow of Babylon by the Persians the Old-Babylonian religion ceased to be a state cult attached to the political center and bound up with its functions of rule. As one of the institutions of the monarchy it had enjoyed a defined official status, and this connection with a local system of secular power had supported and at the same time limited its role. Both support and restriction fell away with the loss of statehood. The release of the religion from a political function was an uprooting comparable to the territorial uprooting of Israel. The fate of subjection and political impotence in the Persian Empire forced the Babylonian religion to stand henceforth on its spiritual content alone. No longer connected with the institutions of a local power system and enjoying the prestige of its authority, it was thrown back upon its inherent theological qualities, which had to be formulated as such if they were to hold their own against other religious systems which had similarly been set afloat and were now competing for the minds of men. Political uprooting thus led to a liberation of spiritual substance….We may discern here the working of a historical law which helps us to understand many mental developments of later antiquity…
…We may suppose comparable processes to have taken place throughout the East, processes by which originally national and local beliefs were fitted to become elements of an international exchange of ideas. The general direction of these processes was toward dogmatization, in the sense that a principle was abstracted from the body of tradition and unfolded into a coherent doctrine
Note how often Jonas’ language is biological: “the transmissible form of teachings”, “competing for the minds of men” (as if they were organisms competing for habitat), “evolved into a system of general intellectual significance”. He seemed to have sensed that the best way to describe this cultural shift was in terms of evolution, but didn’t really possess the right conceptual framework to do so in anything other than metaphorical language. Today, we have such a framework: cultural evolution, or more informally, memetics.
Prior to the Great Disembedding, cultural systems were woven into the living fabric of a people, into their social environment and natural ecology. The people, having been raised in these ideas and thus taking them for granted, did not see the need to justify or universalize their beliefs. Memes (or memeplexes) only flourished if they helped the tribe flourish (e.g. helped them forage more efficiently, made them better fighters, etc.); gene-culture coevolution was tightly coupled.
This evolutionary regime could only be maintained when each culture was relatively isolated. With the onset of the Axial Age, a threshold of socio-political complexity was crossed and ideas that had previously been local to one group were now awash in a vast memepool of competing doctrines and creeds. In order to survive in this all-against-all struggle, systems of thought had to adapt—they had to become logical, sensible, memorable, and, most importantly, universal. The success of a meme now depended more on its “contagiousness” than its phenotypic effect on any particular person or tribe. In other words, gene-culture coevolution was effectively decoupled.
In this new modality of memetic evolution, direct competition between memes intensified and memes began evolving substantially (or primarily) in response to their competitors (as opposed to competition at the higher level of meme-tribe super-organisms). The purveyors of a particular philosophical or spiritual system more often found themselves in dialogue (or direct debate) with the purveyors of other systems; this lead them to increasingly take an outside view on their ideas (“the interiority of reflection”), and develop them (either consciously or unconsciously) with their memetic competitors in mind.
There is an analogy to biological evolution that may be instructive. When all reproduction was asexual, gene variants/mutations were “embedded” in the genome in which they arose, and their spread depended largely on the fitness of their “host genome” (vertical/clonal reproduction). With the arrival of sexual reproduction and recombination roughly two billion years ago, genes could now free themselves from their native soil and spread (horizontally) to new genomic lands. Sexual reproduction also brought a new form of selection—sexual selection—that depended less on the physical environment and more on the composition of the gene pool. For example: a gene that provides a male bird with red plumage but makes them worse at hunting may still be evolutionarily successful if females from the same species happen to possess genes that give them a strong mating preference for red plumage—in other words, survival of the sexiest.
So that’s one part of the story, but it is likely not not even the most important part. The advent of writing (both a cause and a consequence of greater socio-political complexity) was rocket fuel for this new mode of memetic evolution as it dramatically enhanced the “critical self-distancing element of disembedded reflection”. Before writing, the natural limits on human cognition and memory prevented memeplexes from becoming too elaborate or abstract; after, the sky was the limit—words became the fire-hardened bricks with which we erected ever-higher and more intricate thought structures.
Standing some 2000+ years after the Great Disembedding, what are we to make of its consequences? On one hand, we have the gifts: a cultural shift towards rationalization and universalization and perhaps much more—there is something to be said for this notion that the GD gave rise to the “theoretic culture” which in turn begat the Enlightenment and modern science. In the other hand, the curse: the decoupling of genes and culture enabled a powerful new kind of memetic entity to evolve—the ideology. No longer beholden to mutualistic constraints, this new species began to make a living through pure parasitism (the biological equivalent here would be the transposable element).
A person who has had the misfortune to fall victim to the spell of a philosophical system (and the spells of sorcerers are mere trifles in comparison to the disastrous effect of the spell of a philosophical system!) can no longer see the world, or people, or historic events, as they are; he sees everything only through the distorting prism of the system by which he is possessed. Autonomous philosophical systems separated from the living body of tradition are parasitic structures, which seize the thought, feeling and finally the will of human beings. In fact, they play a role comparable to the psycho-pathological complexes of neurosis or other psychic maladies of obsession. Their physical analogy is cancer. (Meditations on the Tarot)
And what about the next 2000 years? Will we all turn to memetic zombies, our minds engulfed by one parasitic ideology or another, or will we evolve a new form of cultural immunity before it is too late?
Any prospective analysis would be remiss if it didn’t begin by noting that we are now in the nascent stages of another Even Greater Disembedding.1
In the end, though, what explains this psychological shift? And here, I wonder if we might locate the problem in the evolution of communication, which has moved from grunts and gestures to symbolic art, language, poetry, the novel, Shakespeare and so on. All these have broadened the scope of metaphorical thinking, building empathy and contextual understanding. To read a novel is to sit for hours in reasoned contemplation of another person’s point of view. To converse in the marketplace or on the street corner — as we once did — is to look into another’s eyes and read layers of meaning not just from their words but a symphony of other cues. The Japanese call it “reading the air”.
But now our collective gaze is directed not upwards and outward but is buried in smartphones, scrolling through Twitter and TikTok, platforms commercially designed to strangle empathy, nuance, metaphor, allegory and complex thought. It is an artificial world of memes, soundbites and reductionist spats where communication is not about mutual understanding but virality. It’s as if modern technology is taking us back to a communicative repertoire of grunts and literal gestures. The philosopher C. Thi Nguyen puts it this way: “The aims of communication are complex and many. Some of us want to transmit information or to persuade; some of us want friendship. Some of us want to join together in the pursuit of truth and understanding…Twitter invites us to shift our values along its prefabricated lines. We start to chase higher likes and retweets and follower counts — and those are very different targets.” He calls it the “gamification of discourse”. (Matthew Syed)
Daniel Dennett and Deb Roy use a different framing than mine but offer what is ultimately a similar analysis in their comparison of the digital era to that of the Cambrian period (“How Digital Transparency Became a Force of Nature”).
More than half a billion years ago a spectacularly creative burst of biological innovation called the Cambrian explosion occurred. In a geologic “instant” of several million years, organisms developed strikingly new body shapes, new organs, and new predation strategies and defenses against them. Evolutionary biologists disagree about what triggered this prodigious wave of novelty, but a particularly compelling hypothesis, advanced by University of Oxford zoologist Andrew Parker, is that light was the trigger. Parker proposes that around 543 million years ago, the chemistry of the shallow oceans and the atmosphere suddenly changed to become much more transparent. At the time, all animal life was confined to the oceans, and as soon as the daylight flooded in, eyesight became the best trick in the sea. As eyes rapidly evolved, so did the behaviors and equipment that responded to them.
The tremendous change in our world triggered by this media inundation can be summed up in a word: transparency. We can now see further, faster, and more cheaply and easily than ever before—and we can be seen. And you and I can see that everyone can see what we see, in a recursive hall of mirrors of mutual knowledge that both enables and hobbles. The age-old game of hide-and-seek that has shaped all life on the planet has suddenly shifted its playing field, its equipment and its rules. The players who cannot adjust will not last long.
This Cambrian explosion provides an analogy for understanding how digital technology will transform society. Transparency of information will put pressure on organizations to evolve.
Animals adapted with exoskeletons, camouflage and methods for distracting opponents. With secrets hard to keep, states and corporations will develop analogous armaments.
The new transparency will ultimately lead to the creation of new types of organizations. Natural selection will favor the quickest and most flexible among them.
Dennett/Roy focus their analysis on the human organization level, but a similar logic applies at the memetic level—this “recursive hall of mirrors of mutual knowledge” is the “interiority of reflection” that we spoke of earlier. The fallout of the digital era’s greater transparency and reflexivity will be the same as it was for the Axial Age Great Disembedding: the dynamics of ideological evolution will become increasingly “self-aware” as human replicators (i.e. ideologues) provide modifications (mutations) aimed increasing mass appeal and/or combating rival creeds.
A sort of cultural evolutionary “law” presents itself, an updated version of the historical law that Hans Jonas described above:
Advances in information technology are inevitably double-edged, producing greater cultural disembedding (i.e. memetic evolution is increasingly driven by inter-memetic arms races instead of mutualistic host/symbiont coevolution) which in turn leads to the evolution of ever more virulent memetic parasites.
Again there is a biological analogy: modern technology has made us better at controlling and suppressing disease (with vaccines, public health interventions, etc.), but has also rendered us more vulnerable to both natural and we might say “man-enabled” pandemics (e.g. the 1918 Spanish Flu, COVID-19, …) because of greater global interconnectivity and increased incidence of zoonotic transfer and drug-resistant “superbugs” (not to mention the looming potential for man-made plagues).
Such are the Red Queen dynamics of Nature red in tooth and claw: everyone must keep running at all times in all directions in order to avoid being overrun by endless forms most insidious and most deadly.
For both biological and cultural super-parasites (some would put forth the “woke mind virus” as an example), there are two general strategies available to us: (1) control the flow of people/memes in order to limit the spread of diseases/ideologies (basically China’s strategy) or (2) somehow fundamentally change our relationship to pathogens/culture such that the threat is ameliorated or made irrelevant. Option 1 is undesirable for obvious reasons and will not succeed over the long run unless control is total. That leaves us with the “somehow” of option 2.
It’s a strange thing, to be suspicious of Culture itself, but the late great psychedelic philosopher Terence Mckenna was a strange dude. I will quote him at length; these memes deserve another chance to spread their wings (all emphases mine).
Well, an ideology is a simplification of reality where the vast, seething, messy baroqueness of being is put through some kind of rasher of language and comes out grossly simplified. And because it’s grossly simplified it becomes like a kind of algebra of idiocy where, now, you can set up these little equations and they solve themselves, and you get a feeling of satisfaction from that. But in fact the whole thing betrays the human enterprise. And to give you a graphic example of what I’m talking about, I’m thinking of a scene from novel called Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières, where a guy who’s a communist in the Greek partisans during the war beats a villager to death who has given shelter and food to some non-Communist partisans fighting in the mountains. And the protagonist of this particular part of the novel says to this guy, as he’s beating this old man to death, he says, “Why are you killing this old man? He is harmless.” And the guy, without even missing a stroke, turns to him and says, “It’s a matter of historical necessity.” This is the voice of absolute fanaticism speaking, and this is the voice of pure ideology.
Culture is not your friend. Ideology is not your friend. And ideology…some people think what we’re trying to do here is sort out good ideologies from bad. Should I be a Marxist? Should I be a deconstructionist? And the answer is: no, none of the above. All ideologies are viral infections of some sort, memetic infections that erode your functionability and your comfort with yourself. Ideologies set up polarities that are based on discontent. And ideologies are always, always, always based on false premises. Whatever the—I mean, name an ideology and I’ll tell you the false premises that it’s based on. So, part of this process of cultural maturity that I’ve been talking about is to get beyond ideology without embracing cynicism. It’s not a fuck you thing, it’s a deeply saddening awareness that we are not yet angel enough that we should take ourselves that seriously. (from the 1994 talk “Appreciating Imagination”)
I think Mckenna has the right idea—there must be a kind of maturation process (a development of memetic immunity) which allows us to see Culture for what it is and not take it too seriously, while also not becoming so apathetic as to allow its fruits to wither on the vine. This is the meta-ideology which we must embrace: a fanatical devotion to the avoidance of fanatical devotion.
As for what this maturation process involves, Mckenna has two ideas: it will require us to become like children and it will require psychedelics…lots and lots of psychedelics.
And, of course, psychedelics figure in here because they dissolve more dramatically and more effectively than anything else the cultural and linguistic and habitual assumptions that are masking that presence of Tao. It really is true, as the Bible says: you must become as a little child. That means you must become pre-culture. You must recover who you were before the engines of culture went to work on you, and abused you, and made you afraid, and dumbed you down, and distorted your values, and so forth and so on…
This has happened before in cultural history, where some huge enterprise—like Christianity or Patriarchy or something like that—after running its games for millennia, it just runs out of steam. And often there’s nothing to rush in and fill the vacuum, nothing that is consciously engineered to do that. And so, then, in those situations an actual creative bifurcation can take place, because what is about to happen is not in the hands of human managers. It lies deeper in the dynamics of the whole system. And we all feel, I think, this sense of excitement, and the approach of the unimaginably new, and we don’t know whether it’s the aliens coming to pull our chestnuts out of the fire, or virtual reality, or a new drug, or a new style of sexual behaving, or starflight. We don’t know what it is, but we can feel that it will transcend the categories of our managers, and they and we will then have to make sense of whatever this new reality is. It terrifies some people, it liberates others.
And probably, in the domain of society, there will always be forms of—I don’t want to say control—but management of the distribution of commodity. But the idea, I think, is to empower this other dimension, to spend as much time as possible in the individual, free-swimming, free-agent mode. In other words, not to see membership in society as a goal and a value to be conserved, but to see it as a necessary evil. You know? We need social organization, but in minimal doses. And when we go on a bender of addiction to social normative behaviors, then you get a psychic epidemic like national socialism where people voluntarily abandon their individuality to act in concert with some kind of mass impulse. This is extremely evolutionary retrograde. It’s not what we want to do.
So I guess what I’m pleading for is an enlightened form of alienation. Not simply an emotionally driven alienation, but a strategically driven alienation. See, alienation can be used not to create neurosis, but to attain freedom. Creative alienation. Alienation that embraces itself as the source of inspiration. Nobody ever said it was going to be comfortable to be a human being and to ride one of these bipedal bodies from the cradle to the grave. It’s an uncomfortable but (I maintain) a manageable situation. But you have to have the lights on. You have to have your emotional responses in order, your intellectual responses in order, you have to have garnered some sense of how we got to this situation, and you have to have some sense of the tools available to transform it.
And, of course, again: what the psychedelics do is provide a reference point in organism. It’s like a reset button. It says beyond ideology, beyond cultural programming, beyond language, beyond hope, beyond fear, beyond expectation, there is the raw datum of experience. Here, have a dose. Didn’t work? Have a bigger dose! And if we keep returning to the raw datum of experience, then these other things, they will re-crystallize around us. But not with the imprisoning intensity that they have for straight people. We know that behind all this constipated social stability lies the chaos of the psychedelic experience. It’s important to keep it in mind in very un-psychedelic situations. But people who have never broken through the cultural dream take it to be reality and commit crimes based on delusions about what is and isn’t reality…(Ibid)
Mckenna was ahead of his time—his claims that psychedelics relax beliefs and return us to a more child-like state are now well-supported—so maybe he was onto something with this maturation process that is really a psychedelically-catalyzed de-maturation process.
Since all culture is a kind of con game, the most dangerous candy you can hand out is one which causes people to start questioning the rules of the game.
In the long run, it may be that the only way to truly change our relationship to Culture will be to change ourselves. The aforementioned cultural “law” stating that advances in information technology (written language, the printing press, the internet) enable further memetic disembedding might be short-sighted, a mirage of our current epoch; the revolutionary advances of the coming millennia may do the opposite, with radical changes to our minds producing a Great Re-embedding in which Man and Meme will merge once again.
I'm designing a new language. I've reached the limits of conventional languages, and now they frustrate my attempts to progress further. They lack the power to express concepts that I need, and even in their own domain, they're imprecise and unwieldy. They're hardly fit for speech, let alone thought.
Existing linguistic theory is useless; I'll reevaluate basic logic to determine the suitable atomic components for my language. This language will support a dialect co-expressive with all of mathematics, so that any equation I write will have a linguistic equivalent. However, mathematics will be only a small part of the language, not the whole; unlike Leibniz, I recognize symbolic logic’s limits. Other dialects I have planned will be co-expressive with my notations for aesthetics and cognition. This will be a time-consuming project, but the end result will clarify my thoughts enormously. After I've translated all that I know into this language, the patterns I seek should become evident.
My new language is taking shape. It is gestalt-oriented, rendering it beautifully suited for thought, but impractical for writing or speech. It wouldn't be transcribed in the form of words arranged linearly, but as a giant ideogram, to be absorbed as a whole. Such an ideogram could convey, more deliberately than a picture, what a thousand words cannot. The intricacy of each ideogram would be commensurate with the amount of information contained; I amuse myself with the notion of a colossal ideogram that describes the entire universe.
The printed page is too clumsy and static for this language; the only serviceable media would be video or holo, displaying a time-evolving graphic image. Speaking this language would be out of the question, given the limited bandwidth of the human larynx.
I understand the mechanism of my own thinking. I know precisely how I know, and my understanding is recursive. I understand the infinite regress of this self-knowing, not by proceeding step by step endlessly, but by apprehending the limit. The nature of recursive cognition is clear to me. A new meaning of the term "self-aware."
Fiat logos. I know my mind in terms of a language more expressive than any I'd previously imagined. Like God creating order from chaos with an utterance, I make myself anew with this language. It is meta-self-descriptive and self-editing; not only can it describe thought, it can describe and modify its own operations as well, at all levels. What Gödel would have given to see this language, where modifying a statement causes the entire grammar to be adjusted.
With this language, I can see how my mind is operating. I don't pretend to see my own neurons firing; such claims belong to John Lilly and his LSD experiments of the sixties. What I can do is perceive the gestalts; I see the mental structures forming, interacting. I see myself thinking, and I see the equations that describe my thinking, and I see myself comprehending the equations, and I see how the equations describe their being comprehended.
I know how they make up my thoughts.
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The invention of the printing press also probably qualifies as a Great Disembedding, though perhaps a somewhat lesser one than the Axial Age (writing) and modern versions (internet/social media):
To understand the current era, [Niall] Ferguson believes we need to look more at what happened after Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press. Like the Web, the use of these presses was difficult to centrally control. “At the beginning of the Reformation 501 years ago, Martin Luther thought naively that if everybody could read the Bible in the vernacular, they’d have a direct relationship with God, it would create ‘the priesthood of all believers’ and everything would be awesome,” said Ferguson.
“We’ve said the same things about the Internet,” he added. “We think that's obviously a good idea. Except it's not obviously a good idea, any more than it was in the 16th century. Because what the Europeans had was not ‘the priesthood of all believers.’ They had 130 years of escalating religious conflict, culminating in the Thirty Years War—one of the most destructive conflicts ever.” (source)