Re: poly: Why Oldies Stations?

From: Damien Broderick <>
Date: Tue Apr 07 1998 - 06:01:10 PDT

At 06:38 PM 4/3/98 +0200, Anders wrote:

>A friend and I once speculated that we have a kind of metaconscious
>(call it whatever you want) system, our schemata of what our lives
>should look like and how they should develop, a kind of long-term plan
>we usually unknowingly develop during maturation. Usually it is not
>conscious, and our conscious plans might not even fit these metalevel
>plans, but sometimes they can reveal themselves to us in various ways

I have proposed (in my 1997 book THEORY AND ITS DISCONTENTS, Deakin
University Press, Australia, ISBN 0 949823 65 1) that human development can
be conceptualised as a staged progression through six phases. This clearly
applies to individuals; I speculated wildly that it might also become a
template for larger scale cultural periodicities, with each mode regnant as
a `cultural dominant' for two 25-year generations, the whole grand cycle
tending to recur every 300 years (sometimes stretched out to 500 years).
The schema was discussed favorably in the March issue of a local journal
called the Australian's Review of Books (an upscale supplement folded into
the national Australian newspaper, hence the name), and I responded to the
review thus:


I was pleased by Professor Alan Olding's generous review of three of my
recent books, and hope to carry the discussion forward by disputing several
points he raised.

Olding goes wrong on my use of cultural Dominants in *Theory and Its
Discontents* by reading the notion too rigidly. I suggested a cycle of six
Dominants (semiotician Roman Jakobson's phrase), each distinctive in the
way it shapes the science and literature of two generations, focussing on
Recipe, Society, Individual, World, Text/Theory, or Code. Olding objects
that Watson's discovery of `DNA's "code" had nothing to do with the
structures of his thought "reshaping" the world, and a great deal to do
with the structures of those bits of chemistry in the world there and
waiting to be come across.' Well, of course - I, too, am a realist in that
sense. But the social, intellectual world (Karl Popper's `World 3') is
plainly shaped and reshaped by the practise of enculturated humans. As
people are largely constituted within the local framing of our (somewhat)
constructed world, we in turn reconstruct that frame.

If the theory of modal dominance has any utility at all, it is because a
generation captured by a given Dominant will just *function most smoothly*
in that mode. There is no Zeitgeist to proscribe or prescribe specific
discoveries (for example, that DNA sequences encode genes), but a dominant
can put their development on the back-burner, or encourage it. Because
Lucky Jim Watson was operating in a Code-conducive climate, perhaps this
nurturing surround accelerated or canalised his characteristic interests
and ways of approaching the problem. These, as it happens (although it
might have been otherwise), fitted the external and culture-independent
facts of DNA's simple decodable structure.

The point at which my case is vulnerable is the implication that at certain
other phases of the great 300-year round of discursive dominants, key
insights or even technical apparatus could be available in principle
without anyone bringing home the bacon. The telescope might sit there,
with the authority-bearers refusing to look through it. If particular
memetic templates are not, as it were, close enough to the surface to
generate the right kind of exploration, and if the ruling cultural modality
is antithetical to such approaches, certain kinds of ideas are not readily
thought or widely accepted as paradigmatic. This claim is quite difficult
to test, of course, as is my further suggestion that such `seasons' might
be related historically to child-rearing practices, which in turn might be
modulated by large-scale weather conditions (such as the El Nino cycle) and
thence food availability. It would require an interdisciplinary program of
historians, scientists, artists and philosophers. I'm just raising some
unfashionable questions (as are Jared Diamond and Frank Sulloway, as Olding
notes, and others such as diplomatic historian George Modelski and social
historians William Strauss and Neil Howe, cited in my book), not preaching
a new dogma.


Since *Theory* came out in 1997, I've sought more general schemata than the
Jakobson/Bakhtin communication model used there. I'd like to see a general
framework for what some systems theorists call autopoietic
(self-bootstrapping) systems. My underlying hunch is that Darwinian
systems that put themselves together and replicate using self-catalysing
networks and all that jazz - life, memes, maybe cultures, perhaps entire
black-hole-budded universes - cycle through a typical sequence of six
stages. They start with what one might call *Instruction* (the data
package in its supportive environment), through *Differentiation* (the
unfolding structure) and *Individuation* (emergence of a functional
`self'), to a final stage of *Recipe guardianship* which links forward into
the first stage. Such an account is not `reductionist' or `deterministic'
in a malign way, any more than human generative grammar restricts us to
saying only certain things. But some things *are* said less readily than
others, especially by those fluent only in a single tongue.

At a time when physicists still hope to find a Theory of Everything at the
most fundamental level in Membrane-theory (a version of superstrings) or
loop space (a version of general relativity), it might not be too absurd to
aspire, as well, to the first glimmerings of a 21st century
post-poststructuralist revival of Grand Theory in the humanities.


This comment addresses mostly second-order speculations, but the primary
level of ontogenetic homeorrhesis or somewhat pre-directed unfolding of
development stages [Anders' schemata, as I understand him, recast in Conrad
Waddington's terminology] seems to me fairly uncontroversial as a synthesis
of various results in child and cognitive developmental psychology.
Because I see these stages as distinct, with their separate modalities or
dominant emphases, I would expect the fast learning, chunking and
menu-preference-settings to be most easily established (first by mimicry
and later by rebellion) in the initial algorithmic, socialisation and
individuation phases, with deep change increasingly resisted in the
empiricist, text/theory, code and re-entrant algorithm-guardianship phases.

But it might be that all I'm doing here is repeating the obvious in fancy

Damien Broderick
Received on Tue Apr 7 05:19:44 1998

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