This excerpt from The Resurgence of the Real was published in Utne Reader, July-August 1997.
How a new perception of body, nature, and place is transforming the world
We are told that the world is shrinking, that vast distance has been conquered by computer and fax, and that the earth is now a "global village" in which all of us are connected as never before. It feels, however, quite the opposite. It feels as if distancing and disconnection are shaping modern life.
If anything is shrinking, it is the fullness of being now experienced by the modern self. In spite of the unbounded "empowerment" promised by companies trying to sell us electronic hardware and software, the buoyant optimism so aggressively peddled in their commercials is hard to come by offscreen. Psychologists report record levels of depression and anxiety. Pollsters repeatedly detect deepening fears regarding economic insecurity as jobs continue to be eliminated or exported. Democratic rule by the people, once considered a sacred trust, has become so irrelevant to Americans that a majority of us don't even vote. For most people today, the web of friends, nearby family members, and community relationships is a shrunken fragment of what previous generations knew. "Leisure time" is now spent at a second, usually low-paying job or in a numbed state of recuperation, usually alone, in front of a television that urges us to escape discontent by purchasing the accoutrements of a "better" life.
The disintegration of so much that once seemed stable is disconcerting. Every night the national news documents the radically shifting conditions in the economy, the world order, and our social fabric. The fragmentation of American society into agonistic ethnic and racial groups is troubling and unexpected in its intensity. Internationally, the instability arising from new geopolitical alignments in the post Cold War period was widely predicted, but the much broader emergence of nationalist fissures and resistance was not. Apart from overt struggles, there is a common mood of disaffection around the world with the United Nations, national governments in general, and various other institutions of modern life.
In this unsettling historical moment, much of the breakdown is actually part of a larger dynamic that has the potential to spark a surprising correction of the assumptions and conditions that have led to the crises of the modern era. Numerous developments in nearly all fields are challenging the modern mechanistic worldview as never before. They do this not merely with complaints about what is wrong but with creative alternatives. Suddenly new possibilities are springing to life in the 1990s where previously deadlock and despair held sway. Yet most of these developments fall outside the scope of our modern expectations and often appear to be puzzling anomalies.
Modern life is shaped by interlocking ideologies, to which we generally give little thought because they seem to be merely the natural result of social evolution. The fact that these ideologies are, in many respects, quite unnatural is wrenchingly apparent to people who have had to move directly into a modern, industrialized society from a traditional agrarian community or an indigenous culture. To such newcomers, it is painfully obvious that modern thinking emphasizes certain things and forcibly ignores or devalues others, including quite basic elements of life. After two or three generations, the sense of loss is diluted and felt only as a deep pool of unease that occasionally surfaces in the mind.
In the modern worldview -- which arose in Europe between 1460 and 1800 and still shapes our thinking -- the human is considered to be Homo economics, "progress" is embraced as salvation, and the ideal of the free wheeling autonomous individual is central. What matters most is that which can be measured, counted, and quantified. It might seem that adopting such an objective orientation would yield concrete, reliable knowledge about the world, but certain assumptions underlie the seemingly obvious decisions about how, what, and why to quantify. Modern science constructed mechanistic models of how the world works and then found the sort of data that fit the model. Perhaps the most significant feature of the modern worldview is its forceful intensification of three core discontinuities present in Western thought since the era of classical Greek philosophy: that there is a radical break between humans and nature, body and mind, and self and the world.
Like any cultural orientation, the modern worldview has accrued a complex record of successes and failures. However, the worst aspects of the failures and the nagging doubts about the successes both have roots in the modern denial of the power and presence of body, nature, and place. That effective lock on perception is yielding in the '90s not to opposing ideologies but to the assertion of the long suppressed characteristics of body, nature, and place themselves. The real is poking its true nature through the modern abstractions that have denied it for several centuries. All this is quite unexpected. Any serious challenges to the modern order were supposed to come from "significant" sectors -- such as left or right manipulations of the modern political economy -- not from those elements of life so thoroughly pushed to the margins of our lives that they have barely been given a second thought. But as ideological skirmishes rage on in small circles, our apprehension of the real is being revised on a far larger scale by the knowing body, the creative cosmos, and the complex sense of place.
The Knowing Body
The concept of a split between the body and the mind is so deeply ingrained in modern medicine that no matter how many times patients ask about a possible link between their ailment and their emotional state, most doctors dismiss such unscientific babble with a shrug or, more likely, an authoritative rebuke. Over the past 30 years the medical establishment has successfully held off efforts by practitioners of "alternative" or "complementary" therapies to gain acceptance -- particularly with medical insurance companies. In the past three years, however, events have converged to provide an opening for an assertion of the real into the lives of millions of people: a refutation of the mechanistic ideology and its body-mind split.
After the medical insurance industry defeated the Clinton administration's attempt to impose "managed competition" in 1993-94, the industry set out to prove it could lower costs without further governmental regulation. Many of their cost-cutting measures have been deleterious to patients, and 40 million people still have no medical coverage. The one silver lining in the crisis, though, is the medical insurance industry's sudden acceptance of the successes of "alternative" therapies. This shift was made possible by the accumulation of studies showing that many such therapies clear up the symptoms of various ailments and illnesses as quickly as -- and, in some cases, faster than -- conventional medicine, while costing less and imposing few undesirable side-effects.
A new field called behavioral medicine, for instance, has been growing on the margins of the medical establishment for the past 20 years, documenting the healing effects of such nonphysical therapies as meditation, prayer, and relaxation techniques on depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, and many other conditions. One of the pioneers in behavioral medicine, Herbert Benson of Harvard University, has come to understand it as "the biology of hope."
Many patients have successfully controlled disease or pain through such modes of behavioral medicine as biofeedback, visualization, and meditation. Many others have gotten positive results from "somatic" techniques -- including Therapeutic Touch, massage, and several forms of bodywork -- that involve subtle attention to energy blocks held in the musculature. Yoga, tai chi, and other movement practices also help heal certain chronic ailments. Finally, millions have found relief with herbal treatments, homeopathy, and acupuncture. The combination of Chinese herbs and acupuncture has been proven highly effective in treating a wide range of problems, including arthritis, whole-body trauma, infertility, and bacterial infections. In March 1996, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally reclassified acupuncture needles from the category of "experimental devices" and approved them for "general acupuncture use" by "qualified practitioners." Almost immediately HMOs and other medical insurance companies began to include acupuncture in their coverage.
What have we learned as a result of these practices? At the very least, we've discovered that the body is something other than a biomachine whose parts occasionally break, requiring repair work by a medical mechanic. Millions of people who have been helped by alternative therapies have concluded experientially that the body must indeed be some sort of self-correcting energy system, even if they remain unfamiliar with or unconvinced about the holistic theory underlying such practices. Again and again, people have found that the bodymind, if it is assisted instead of assaulted, demonstrates remarkable capabilities of self-healing. It can, for instance, grow new synapses around damaged parts of the brain or, as one recent study surprisingly showed, reconstruct the fallopian tubes even after they have been surgically seared, causing 18.5 unexpected pregnancies per every 1,000 tubal ligations.
For the first time in 350 years the mechanistic model of the body is being nudged aside. One of the results of this shift is increased attention to a new field called psychoneuroimmunology, in which studies have found that mental states of anxiety or negativity suppress the immune system. In fact, our endocrine glands, autonomic nervous system, and cellular immune system are now understood to function as a systemic integration -- one with impressive capabilities to recover balance after a disturbance. Many clinical investigators contend that the role of alternative therapies is merely to halt whatever is interrupting the bodymind's self-healing abilities.
An appreciation of the complexity of the self-healing processes has also displaced the mechanistic principle that disease is simply the result of the presence of a particular virus or bacteria. After all, one third of the world's population is infected with the tuberculosis bacterium at any time, but only 10 percent of those infected develop the disease. Other factors are involved as well.
Just as our cells, our organs, and our entire organism are finely tuned to subtle internal perturbations, so too are they engaged in the physical dynamics of the world around them. A new appreciation of the integral connection of the bodymind with the natural world is changing mechanistic assumptions in physiology. Far from living on top of nature, the bodymind responds in myriad ways to seasonal change, sound, and light. A study in 1995 found that businesses in largely "daylighted" buildings experienced lower rates of absenteeism and fewer work errors. Alas, it was also determined that consumers tend to buy more when they're shopping in the naturally lit parts of stores.
The bodymind is indeed knowing, for it creates meaning. It is sensitive to an enormous range of subtle dynamics in and around it, from which it perceives, selects, and organizes information. It makes sense of everything -- its own sense -- and creates an informing history based organically on past relations and interactions. It can care and repair. It can flourish or struggle cannily to survive. Each bodymind is unique and unpredictable. Each is attuned to the surrounding whole.
The Creative Cosmos
Once the mechanistic worldview came into ascendance with the scientific revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries, Westerners began to perceive nature as predictable within a frame of reference that could be determined by mathematical calculation. According to this view, the entire universe was a play of dead, or at least dumb, matter: objects situated in empty space, acted upon by fixed laws of mechanical behavior and moving in a uniform flow of time. Seen through this lens, all of nature appeared to yield to the triumphant structure of knowledge that was modern science.
In recent years, however, a wide range of work in chaos theory, complexity studies, and other areas of postmechanistic science has debunked this view and revealed the remarkable self-organizing capacities of nature. In scientific circles, the modern perception of determinism is giving way to a recognition of dynamic systems in which order and disorder arise in intimate relation. Ilya Prigogine, a pioneer in chaos studies, has concluded that the universe is essentially "formed by disorder, in which order floats." In other words, states of nonequilibrium, which seem chaotic, move farther and farther from equilibrium and, finally, arrive in new patterns of coherence: events, order, and new equilibrium.
One of the central findings of complexity science is that various properties of a system emerge through its dynamic behavior and interactions. Such properties cannot be predicted mechanistically at the outset from knowledge of the component parts. Instead, order arises from the complex dynamic behavior of the system's parts. It is now increasingly apparent that the entire universe -- from vast galaxies to microscopic cells -- unfolds through systems of spontaneous self-organization. The universe is much more creative and non-linear than the modern, mechanistic worldview supposed.
In terms of biological evolution, complex adaptive systems seek patterns and learn from their interactions with the environment. They carry within their range of possibilities -- which includes their genetic coding -- information about adjacent and surrounding systems. The capabilities of biological organisms to generate form are now understood to involve far more than DNA, contrary to the reductionism of molecular biology. The new view shifts the focus to the entire organism as a center of creativity dependent on the relational order among its components. The systemic point of view has also yielded new understandings of human social structures, such as economics, politics, and historical developments. For instance, the economist Brian Arthur, inspired by discoveries of complex dynamics in biology, has proposed that a principle he calls "increasing returns" -- positive feedback that magnifies a particular pattern or condition, allowing it to grow and become a dominant characteristic of a system -- explains the way market forces "pick winners." Examples include the dominance of the VHS videotape format over the technologically superior Beta format and the acceptance of the early gasoline0-driven internal combustion engine over the more fuel-efficient steam-driven models. According to Arthur's dynamic analysis of economics, "the economy is constantly on the edge of time. It rushes forward, structures constantly coalescing, decaying, changing."
Clearly all this focus on process and complex dynamics marks the beginning of a sea change in Western thought. These discoveries overturn the core assumptions of the modern worldview even though the new sciences already seem to have been absorbed in certain quarters into the consuming quest for the modern grail: prediction and control. Other uses of this information continue to emerge, however, with the goal of enhancing creativity and designing wiser forms of organization than the rigid, hierarchical model. One of the pioneering books on rethinking organizational development, Leadership and the New Science: Learning about Organization from an Orderly Universe by Margaret Wheatley (1992), emphasizes the difference between order and control, as well as the challenge of becoming comfortable with uncertainty
The Complex Sense of Place
In the modern worldview, place was associated with constraint: the binding ties of community, extended family, and tradition, as well as the local demands of nature. The heroic figures of modern literature boldly escape their place of origin and head for the new promised land: the city, with its sprawling urban potential rising from flattened hills and filled-in stream beds, offering anonymity and a heady autonomy in exchange for nearly everything else. Modern architecture (the "International style") liberated itself from the local and the vernacular by reducing design to a sterile minimalism that is truly cosmopolitan, reflecting no place and no culture, only an ideology of freedom through denial. In recent years a different sort of disengagement from place has emerged alongside the modern: The deconstructionist type of postmodern analysis asserts that we never actually know anything about our local patch of the biosphere because we know only the concepts our particular society has invented (including language and science) to refer to the natural world. While the more dogmatic forms of this orientation have faded, a softer "constructionist" version remains influential among many intellectuals today. It spawns books and articles extolling a limited one-way view of interaction with place: the projection by humans of their "social constructions" onto nature.
All this seems exceedingly odd -- and more than a little pathological -- to traditional native people. From an early age, they learn to pay a great deal of attention to the dynamics of the natural world and observe with sensitivity the dramas, rhythms, and presence of place. Even children who have been schooled in modernity's radical discontinuity between humans and nature often have a profound engagement with a natural place -- a summer camp, a grandparent's farm, or a hideaway spot near home. Throughout their lives they carry in their minds that sense of place, which they came to know with a child's deep capacity for personal response. The presence of place shapes their unfolding, offering over the years refuge and sustenance, stability and grace.
A two-way process of communication, then, situates a people in place over hundreds or thousands of years through eco-social "constructions" of a culture. Nonmodern societies lose meaning and definition if their essential connection with place is denied. Yet their freedom to interact with place has often been usurped by conceptual inventions such as the modern state. Even worse, their identity as a people of place has often been deliberately suppressed by the modern state in order to create a culturally homogeneous, modern society.
The independence efforts of such peoples as the Kurds, Basques, Tibetans, Chechnyans, Slovenians, and Croatians can best be understood in the context of the thousands of nations (long-standing or indigenous cultural entities) whose ancient territory has been surrounded or divided by the boundaries of modern states, both capitalist and communist. Since no level of autonomy below the state is recognized by the modern political system, these nations have no legal forum in which to present their case for sovereignty and self-determination. The United Nations, the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and so forth are all clubs whose membership is open only to sovereign states. Consequently, more than 72 percent of the wars fought since World War II have been wars of independence initiated by ancient nations that have been gobbled up by modern states. These independence efforts are invariably called "insurgencies," "ethnic uprisings," or regressive "tribalism" by diplomats and the media. They are usually viewed as disruptions of pax moderna that rightfully should be crushed by the state.
Phasing out such "backward" vestiges has always seemed perfectly correct -- indeed progressive -- to political leaders because the origins of the modern state are rooted in liberation from tradition. Leaping beyond the despotic rule of kings and cardinals, however, need not have included a sweeping contempt for all deeply rooted cultures. In the name of efficiency (and control), a standardized dominant culture was enforced. The French government, for example, insisted until quite recently that all children be named after figures in French history or the Judeo-Christian tradition, thereby rendering illegal the ancient Celtic names traditionally given to children in Brittany. Similarly, U.S. authorities forced several generations of Native American children to attend boarding schools where they were beaten if they spoke their own language, even privately.
In recent years an argument has been put forth by certain legal scholars for expanding the category of legal independence struggles to include ancient nations surrounded or divided by modern states. Currently only independence efforts by countries that were colonized by empires have legal standing. A strong interpretation of this extension would make military or other reprisals by states clearly illegal, once a bona fide independence vote had been taken in the seceding nation. Had that been the case when the three independence votes were taken in the former Yugoslavia (first in Slovenia, then in Croatia, then in Bosnia), the federal government (by then mostly Serbian) would not have been permitted to call out its armed forces and retaliate with impunity -- first by bombing the capital of Slovenia and later by bombing scores of cities and towns in Croatia and Bosnia. Neither would the federal government have been permitted to incite and supply surrogate groups (Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia, Krajina Serbs in Croatia) with weapons and other material support. In the absence of a law that would recognize "captive nations," the international community felt from the beginning that it could not intervene in a conflict taking place within the borders of a modern state.
A second area in which the politics of place is emerging is as a counterforce to the destructive effects of the globalized economy. The assumption underlying the euphoric claims made on behalf of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) is that every nation will earn most of its income from exports. Nearly every major political party in every modern nation state supports this model, in spite of the fact that basing one's future on conditions in distant markets is extraordinarily risky. Advocates for the global economy -- who until recently included most editorial writers in American newspapers -- champion it as the bearer of unbounded potential, a rising tide that will lift all boats. Some true believers go so far as to claim that the global economy is an evolutionary triumph with spiritual overtones. Alas, it is difficult to accept that spiritual spin unless one truly believes that the universe harbors a teleological urge to have transnational corporations control the planet. Free trade as defined by GATT means that the transnational corporations (TNCs) are free to do as they please, while no one else is. If a TNC deems any country's laws concerning environmental protection, labor, or community-based economics to be "prejudicial" toward corporate practices, products, or services, the TNC need only file a grievance against that country with the World Trade Organization in Geneva, the enforcement arm of GATT. If that body upholds the grievance, the country must change its laws or pay the TNC for its "lost" sales. Already, three grievances against U.S. environmental laws have been upheld.
Because the transnationals have the resources to crush any competition, especially with the carte blanche afforded by GATT, communities around the world are beginning to realize that they are vulnerable to the destructive effects of the global market. As a result, the alternative of community-based economics and regional trade is rapidly gaining adherents. Both seek to keep money circulating largely within a specific region. In the first half of the '90s, many lending agencies, development programs, and foundations shifted their focus to microloans for small-scale entrepreneurs, usually Third World women in villages and the urban poor. The demand for small scale, sustainable economic development, in fact, emerged as a dominant concern at the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. In addition, the hypermodern dream of a globalized cybereconomy is being challenged in the United States by a growing number of community-based enterprises and organizations, including microloan programs, nonprofit corporations that build housing, and farmers' markets and other types of community-supported agriculture. The security, both economic and social, of place is now a primary countervailing force as the globalized economy continues to intensify.
The emergent perception of the knowing body, the creative cosmos, and the complex sense of place is leading us beyond the boundaries of the modern worldview. Already, it seems inconceivable that we could ever regress back to the ideologies of denial -- that is, seeing the body once again as nothing but a biological machine, the biosphere and cosmos as nothing but a predictable, mechanistic clockwork, and place as nothing but background scenery for human projects. Quite the contrary, in fact. We will surely learn more about these processes, but the universe unfolds in ultimate mystery. With luck, what we will learn is a sense of awe before the real, the extraordinary source and grounding of all our endeavors.
Charlene Spretnak is the author of several books on social issues, ecological politics, and spiritual concerns. This article is adapted from the Introduction and Chapter One her new book. The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature, and Place in a Hypermodern World (Addison-Wesley).