What We Lost (or How We Got Stuck)

evolution cartoon

[Link to Part I, but you don’t need to read part I to understand this]

If I can look at my own history as a narrative with highs and lows, with periods of clarity and periods of confusion and frustration, then this also probably describes human history as well. Of course, this would contradict the typical historical narrative, which envisions nothing much happening in human development for almost all of our 200 or 300 thousand years, until the last few thousand years, when everything began to improve and become suddenly creative and “advanced”, thanks mostly to technology. This narrative ends up forcing us to look at earlier or less-technologically obsessed cultures as more primitive, and sometimes less intelligent or creative than we are now, as if our history was an escalator climb, and we’re standing quite a few floors above them now.

This picture of the past is a little too pat and conceited. It reminds me of the stages of human development envisioned by Ken Wilber and others (see “The Limits of Ken Wilber”). There’s insight in these stage development models, but the details seem to reflect patterns of development within a regressive culture. And this regression may tend to stretch individual development along lines of partial maturation. Slicing and dicing these stages of delay in our maturation is insightful, but when we begin to project these developmental patterns onto older cultures, I think we’re only repeating patterns of colonial conceit.

My inclination is to assume three fundamental stages of development, depicted in that old Zen saying – “first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” I understand this to mean, first we see the world without the lens of language, a pre-linguistic directness. Then language begins to form an interpretive gauze over the mental eye, which is insightful, practical, and necessary for functioning in the world. But the gauze also begins to obscure the “mountain”. It’s the elongation of this second stage that most of these stage development models are elaborating upon (insightfully, this is not a criticism, but a different angle to consider). Near the conclusion of this stage, post-modern insights such as “everything is language” or “there is no ‘thing’, only ‘thought’” erupt. Here, reality itself begins to seem doubtful. A kind of derealization crisis takes place. They can see that there is no mountain without the idea of a “mountain”. But the eruption of a third stage, which is actually not so much a stage, as a gateway into a larger form of life, erupts when the post-modern insight is completed, and the insight that “everything is a story” no longer stops us from seeing the mountain again. Now we’re no longer blinkered by our necessary interpretations. We can cease interpreting the world from the outside (when interpretations are not needed), and no longer relate to the mountain like an alien visitor. Now we “know” the mountain, not merely as a practical idea (all the time), but as an unnamable portion of eternity, a portion of our own fathomless Being.


At any rate, if patterns like the one above were true across the board, and not merely valid for people growing up in this cultural stream, then you’d think that these older cultures would never produce individuals such as Lao Tzu and the Buddha, who are still far more advanced than any of us living today.

Was the Magna Carta, after all, an advancement in human development or was it a stopgap measure to preserve an increasingly complex and narrowly-focused, top-down (control-obsessed) culture from its own fragmenting self-interests?  Maybe we could say that Pre-state societies by and large didn’t need Magna Cartas. The individual, the communal and the cosmic were already more often than not in balance. (Otherwise we wouldn’t survive). I know it’s hard to believe we’re not at the pinnacle of development, because we were raised to see a mature human being as something almost Utopian and out of reach. And that’s partially right: in this cultural stream it has become very difficult to grow up, everything tends towards delay and escapism.

So it was a great joy to read “The Dawn of Everything,” by David Graeber and David Wengrow, because I think they’ve finally upended this conceited illusion of an inevitable development towards a particular form of social organization, which is the top-down system of technologically-inspired control we pretend to enjoy today. Our imagination seems to have shrunk to only two possibilities — the right clamoring for stricter, even more dictatorial controls (in the name of freedom, of all ironies, the freedom to do the selfish thing and remain childishly disconnected from the communal dimension), while the Left is clamoring for more paternalistic controls, which also keeps us perpetually infantilized, with the teleological result that we need to be controlled for our own pathetic good).

So it comes as a reviving shock to realize that human beings once knew how to live without any boot on their necks whatsoever, and it wasn’t because their societies were simpler (as it turns out). (And even if that argument held an ounce of water, then why would we allow our societies to become so complex that they require a boot on the neck and earthly destruction? At the very least, why would we celebrate our current predicament as an advancement? Are we celebrating human development or merely technological development?)

Quick Summary of One Small Portion of this Huge Book

But I should let the authors speak a little on their own before heading off on more tangents. However, this summary (of sorts) will inevitably give the impression that their book is merely an opinion piece, because I can’t help but leave out the vast body of historical research, and the clear-headed logic of the arguments that support their presentation. These are quotes that can’t be fully absorbed or appreciated without reading the book itself.

At any rate, it appears that the old stage descriptions of social evolution – from foraging bands to conquering tribes to chiefdoms to states (or from hunting/gathering to agricultural civilizations to techno-states) – are not valid. The vaster stretches of human pre-history were marked by far wilder experimentations in all of those forms of social organization, and with far more creative mixed forms — an experimentation which has stagnated over the past few thousand years (here and there, and increasingly everywhere) into hierarchical states of hyper-control.

These experimentations were not random or instinctual, but carefully considered forms of social reorganization, which often had the intent of avoiding the worst excesses of systemic control.

“Rather than being trapped in some sort of Rousseauian innocence, unable to imagine more complex forms of organization, people were generally more capable than we are of imagining alternative social orders, and therefore had created “societies against the state”. They had self-consciously organized in such a way that the forms of arbitrary power and domination we associated with ‘advanced political systems’ could never possibly emerge” (pg 113).

One strategy was to shift seasonally between one social form and another, as a way of preserving themselves from the extremes of either/or.

“You can’t speak of an evolution from band to tribe to chiefdom to state if your starting points are groups that move fluidly between them as a matter of habit….They shifted back and forth between alternative social arrangements, building monuments and then closing them down again, allowing the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of the year then dismantling them – all, it would seem on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable. The same individual could experience life in what looks to us sometimes like a band, sometimes a tribe, and sometimes like something with at least some of the characteristics we now identify with states” (111).

Although these arrangements varied wildly from place to place, the general tendency towards “seasonal dualism” was a dominant characteristic of early human societies.

“In other words, there is no single pattern. The only consistent phenomenon is the very fact of alteration, and the consequent awareness of different social possibilities.” (111)

Their power during state-like periods of the year was almost like a performance, in which the participants played roles which couldn’t be taken too literally.

“With such institutional flexibility comes the capacity to step outside the boundaries of any given structure and reflect; to both make and unmake the political worlds we live in. If nothing else, this explains the ‘princes’ and ‘princesses’ of the last Ice Age [burials of highly decorated individuals (usually of unusual human specimens (dwarfs, giants, and the malformed)], who appear to show up, in such magnificent isolation, like characters in some kind of fairy tale or costume drama. Maybe they were almost literally so. If they reigned at all, then perhaps it was, like the ruling clans of Stonehenge, just for a season” (111).

It’s precisely this realization that everything is a drama (a fiction, an experimental arrangement), which also marks the quality of a prismatic perspective – the fluidity (or seasonality) of mind that doesn’t get stuck seeing through the narrow lens of the Self (the role, the resume, the position and status).

What I’m suggesting is this: when we lost our capacity to extricate ourselves from unhealthy forms of social organization, it could also be described as getting stuck in a microcosmic slant or in a Literal frame of mind.

Where We Describe How this Relates to the Issues of Perception Discussed on Negative Geography

From now on, don’t conflate what I’m saying with anything they’re writing. I’m going off on a reflective tangent. So don’t blame them for where I go, although I’ll still draw on some observations from the book.

I think our own partial regression can be described as a lost seasonality of our perceptual potential (a lost “prismatic” capacity) – the lost ability to drop the drama of the Self (of the microcosm) long enough to see things from the larger and more important context of the We (the communal) and the unnamable All (the mysterious or infinite). Or, maybe it’s the capacity to see the Self through the wider lens of the communal and the cosmic, because the wider vision includes the narrower visions, whereas our own primarily narrow vision excludes (and often derides or denies) the wider communal and cosmic vantage points. That’s why socialism is hated, that’s why individualism is held as a higher value here.

But it’s through these three primary lenses – moving constantly between them, probing the potential of each in relation to larger nested hierarchies of perception — that we find our creative place in this world.

However, in this culture, we’ve narrowed ourselves down to this one frequency of self-centric action and regard this almost as if it were a biological imperative and not merely a habit of perception.

A Lost Capacity to Move into a Wider Frame

Rites of passage were how older cultures taught their children to see from a wider perspective (this is my guess, I didn’t take it from the book, so don’t blame them). But I think this is another element of what we’ve lost – a proper rite of passage for men and women. And male energy is particularly destructive if it doesn’t pass this self-centric threshold. So let’s talk about manhood for a minute without shame. We need men and women to serve something wider than these various forms of Self that dominate life today. We need to be humbled by a larger world or men (in particular) become destructive forces. Maybe the essential mistake of modern manhood is its conflation with the king on the hill, the leader to whom we submit far too much.

In most pre-state societies (contrary to prejudice) there were few leaders of that sort, or when they appeared, they appeared as seasonal performances of a sort. But absolute, coercive power wasn’t the model of manhood. The power of chiefs predominantly lay in their capacity to persuade, to be eloquent in expressing a wider vision, and this breadth gave them a mature calm. Generally they didn’t have the authority to force anyone to do anything. Individual freedom was far more profound than our own, where we regularly submit to the greater Ego of a leader or commander or supervisor, and still somehow pretend that we’re free.

“Wealthy Wendat men hoarded such precious things largely to be able to give them away on dramatic occasions…. Neither in the case of land and agricultural products, nor that of wampum and similar valuables, was there any way to transform access to material resources into power – at least, not the kind of power that might allow one to make others work for you, or compel them to do anything they did not wish to do. At best, the accumulation and adroit distribution of riches might make a man more likely to aspire to political office (to become a ‘chief’ or ‘captain’ – the French sources tend to use these terms in an indiscriminate fashion); but as the Jesuits all continually emphasized, merely holding political office did not give anyone the right to give anybody orders either. Or, to be completely accurate, an office holder could give all the orders he or she liked, but no one was under any particular obligation to follow them” (Dawn of Everything).

There is a lot of twisted and confusing irony in all this. Many earlier cultures were usually (or at least seasonally) more individualistic and freer than our own highly regulated societies. It’s my guess that in pre-state cultures we came of age by renouncing delusions of grandeur and overwrought emotions. Nobody held power over anyone, because the far larger world was always in view, and this mature vista had a natural dampening effect on individual claims to power over anyone else. So individuality was a limited power, but unbreakable by any other individual.

Whereas, ironically, in this culture, which reputedly celebrates the Self, we willingly give up our autonomy and freedom to join an army or become an employee. This self-deletion is not humility. We merely merge with the larger Ego of the authorities who “lead” us. So we avoid being humbled by transferring our identity to that larger Ego. But this requires giving up our own autonomy and freedom and becoming pawns.

This transference is born, nevertheless, of a healthy urge to serve a larger vision. But the larger Egos we serve are not larger visions. They are still narrow Selves defined by opposition. We don’t even realize that it’s possible to see things communally or cosmically anymore. We can’t even imagine cultures existing that weren’t focused on self-interest as primary. We take this lens as a natural law and this presumption shuts down our imagination, forming a teleological trap.

But some previous cultures retained that prismatic capacity. They didn’t all lose their tether to a wider We or All, which gave the Self a limited domain, but within that domain it was sovereign and free from control. This doesn’t happen for us as easily, because we’ve limited ourselves to seeing the isolated Self as the whole enchilada. Our imagination of possibilities has expanded impressively for the isolated Self (resulting in an infinity of virtual worlds), while simultaneously trapping us within this narrower bandwidth of self-centric attention and interest.

The sane rite of passage is a passage into larger worlds. The individual neither submits to, nor dominates other individuals in this passage, but joins them. The boy learned to be a man by being humbled by something greater than himself, but this never made him a pawn. He became a servant to a greater world (but not as a literal servant to others) because he could see his individuality within a wider and humbling context.

As I noted in the last essay, “being put in our place” can also be described as “being welcomed home.” When we know our place in the world, then we have a role or meaning in something larger. Until we know our own limits, we can’t know real freedom. The bear knows it is a bear, and finds freedom in its limited form. If it tried to be an eagle, it would trap itself in a delusion. So there is no freedom in striving for an illusory goal of limitless supremacy. If we don’t know our place in the world, we’ll be trapped in a delusional frame.

Here there is no such rite of passage. The boy and girl are encouraged to cling to their delusions of grandeur, or in the unfortunately unforgettable words of Melania Trump – “Be great.”

This is what makes our diminished state so hard to recognize. The personal lens is also infinite. But it’s a limited infinity. It’s a beam of creative light that stretches infinitely, but only within a narrow cone of illumination. So we get lost in this narrow infinity and never realize the limitations that would ironically free us to find our place in a larger world.

Where we Talk About Surrogates that Trap Us in the Narrow Frame

We “think” we know what it means to see the world through a wider lens. We have surrogate thoughts that stand in for the social and cosmic lenses: we have group-think and we have religious imagery of an individual God, who more often than not is imagined looking down on all the separate little souls, promising (eventually) some sort of merger, but the details of that transition are vague and happen in some fanciful future, which never quite sits right with our insistence on remaining separate souls.

This is what happens to perception when the narrow frame of thinking replaces the larger, non-oppositional frame of the We and the All. We end up with counterfeit forms of those other lenses. The social frame is made counterfeit as a group identity. The cosmic frame is made counterfeit as a fundamentalist, Literal form of religion. The mythic mind collapses into the Literal Rule. The empathy of Being collapses into indifference.

So our vision still remains narrow, even if we “lose ourselves” momentarily in the larger Ego of the group. This group identity still can’t see the needs of the earth, or of humanity, or of life itself as superseding the bounded interests of an oppositional identity. In other words, no matter how “large” the group identity might be, it remains narrow, because it has boundaries.

Boundaries are not limits. The phrase “we need boundaries” is a confused expression of a need to discover limits. Boundaries exclude and preserve a narrow point of view. Limits are humbling accommodations of something larger.


I think we experience such high rates of depression in this culture (and why almost all European captives of Native American tribes when given the choice stayed with the tribes, and why none of the captured Native Americans chose to stay in relatively “advanced” Europe) is that lost autonomy, which includes the lost capacity to throw off the chains of monolithic perception (a lost negational capacity) to radically shift from one focal depth to another, as need arose.

It’s only the negative capability of not getting stuck in any singular lens that allows the individual to find a place in a wider and more connected world. As we said, individuals are not by and large celebrated within this self-obsessed culture. It’s only from a social or cosmic vantage point that the idiosyncratic perspective is honored for its contribution. Individual freedom was a priority, because from a cosmic and social focal point, there is no benefit in crushing idiosyncratic insights and vantage points. But because the social and cosmic focal points remained active, this oriented individual thinking in socially and cosmically balanced directions.

This isn’t Utopian, except to people who have long believed that imprisonment is only natural.

3 thoughts on “What We Lost (or How We Got Stuck)

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