Friday, April 17, 2015

How’s the revolt against the Sensate mentality going? (Sorokin’s Social and Cultural Dynamics)

More than half a century ago the noted sociologist (for his contemporaries, nowadays he is almost forgotten) Pitirim Sorokin saw all around him the signals of a generalized revolt against the “Sensate” mentality that had dominated Western culture and thought for the previous three centuries. What were the defining features of that mentality? (the attentive reader will find them not that different from my own definition of Desiderative Reason, or the current dominant reason), in sometimes painstaking detail he identified the following:

·         Preeminence of what can be perceived with the senses (hence its name), it identifies matter as the ultimate reality (as matter is all we can perceive and about whose existence we can be reasonably sure)

·         Culturally it tends to highlight verisimilitude and a close representation of the everyday reality, and a taste for artifice and opulence as they appeal directly to our perception (as opposed to more “abstract” or “ideographic” ways of expression, which require some discursive baggage to be appreciated): impressionism in painting, baroque excesses in architecture, naturalism (extreme realism) in literature, romanticism in music…

·         Ethically it favors utilitarianism, as pleasure is the only measure empirically accessible (without appealing to any transcendent principle) of what is ultimately good

·         Politically individualist, thus prone to excessive egoism, weekly integrated social groups and anomie, lacking the possibility to argue for shared sacrifice in the name of a unifying idea shared by all the community

·         Scientifically successful, open to technological change and economically dynamic, due to the absence of absolute ideals that may hamper experimentation and testing of new ideas, new organizational forms and the development of new conceptual frameworks that enable a more efficient manipulation of nature

Sorokin sees the whole evolution of the West, from 600 AC to his days (the original version of this book was published in 1937, amid the rise of Fascism and Nazism and before the conflagration of WWII, although the abridged version I read was issued, with very minor updates, in 1957, so before the great social upheavals of the 60s, of which more later on) as a continuous alternation between a dominance of that “Sensate” mentality and that of its opposite, the “Ideational” (with some intervals of equilibrium between both, which he christened as “Idealistic”, not to be confused with the latter).
What makes his analysis of interest (for me at least) is that he considered the whole Western Civilization in the throes of a gigantic upheaval, as the dominant mentality (extremely sensate), which had peaked in the second half of the XIXth Century, had exhausted itself and was disintegrating, to (necessarily) give way to a new Ideational one, which would be defined by exactly the opposite traits of the ones that had dominated until then:

·         For the Ideational mentality what the senses convey is essentially a fiction, not the true reality. That ultimate truth is an abstract principle, an ideal, and definitely non-material

·         Culturally it tends to rely on certain artificial conventions to represent that idea which, by definition, is not directly apprehensible by the senses: symbolism and exaggeration of those features that “represent” the hidden reality in painting (and lack of concern for things like perspective, which leads to hieratism, standardization of certain aspects, and more schematic visual arts in general), simple, pure forms in architecture, allegorical literature, Gregorian chant in music…

·         Ethically it favors deontology, the unyielding compliance with absolute principles which do not seek to justify themselves by any kind of appeal to human nature or human necessities

·         Politically collectivist, tending to totalitarianism as the abstract ideals that it favors neither depend on the individual nor aim to the fulfillment of his material needs, but rather sees him as a cog in the machine of realizing the higher truth (of the church, the racially pure state or the proletarian revolution)

·         Not that interested in science, technology or material well-being in the first place (as all of them are oriented towards the understanding and ultimate mastery of the material world, which for the ideational type is of secondary importance), so predominantly ideational societies tend to be stagnant (or openly regressive) in all three aspects

But it has to be remarked, and that is an important consideration, that ALL of those traits would show only if the culture that shows them achieves what he called “integration”, or internal coherence. Many cultures are not fully integrated, so they may show a hodgepodge of features varying between both poles, being for example architecturally ideational but economically sensate, or musically idealistic (unlikely, as idealism requires a balance in all aspects of culture that almost prescribes it from flourishing in a single field) whilst ethically ideational (by having a very theological, revealed religion type of ethics, for example).

In Sorokin's schema, this is how the oscillation between sensate and idealistic has played out during Western History (assigning a +1 to a culture that is 100% ideational and -1 to a culture that is 100% sensate):

So we are coming (belatedly, as usual) to the crux of this post. According to the analysis I’ve been presenting (and it is the pithiest summary of a rich and very rewarding book), after the “classical” period of the Renaissance, Europe started a sensate period that reached its apex (or, as I have depicted it, its nadir) between 1850 and 1900, and has been breaking down ever since, as manifested in the following signals:

·         In art painters have run away from figurativism (trying to represent reality as its presented to our senses) in a succession of “isms” (surrealism, cubism, futurism, minimalism, expressivism, in an ever accelerating push towards abstraction. In a similar fashion, in literature modernism (think the obsession to capture the “flow of conscience” in Proust or Joyce) has exhausted itself and we saw (remember this was written in the thirties) a number of experimental works that do not point in any clear direction and a certain return of the realist novel (think Bellow’s “the adventures of Augie March”). Architecture was in the throes of rationalism and the international style, far from the sensuous excesses of decades past, and in music Schönberg dodecafonism and Stravinsky and Ravel (not to mention Berg) were moving it further and further from easily identifiable melodic arrangements typical of sensate sensibilities.

·         Democracy was, at the time of Sorokin writing, everywhere in retreat, threatened by the rise of totalitarianism in multiple forms (before WWII) and in its Soviet incarnation afterwards

·         The direction Science was taking was distinctly un-sensate, as quantum mechanics was revealing matter to be little more than a bunch of abstractions (as one eminent physicist put it, quarks were “the dreams stuff is made of”) as beyond our grasp as any ideational noumena could aspire to be (and with a extent of “knowability” limited by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle that seemed to put a cap on how close we could get to revealing its true mechanisms)

So for our friend Pitirim the writing on the wall was clear: the sensate mentality was dying, the societies that embodied it were decomposing and the internal dynamic of social evolution made it unavoidable the things would take an ideational turn, towards a new primacy of the ideal, and more theological overtones at all levels, from our understanding of reality to our legal codes. Again, it has to be remembered that this was written before the Sixties, which I guess would have validated much of his analysis of a dying culture which refuses more and more violently any inheritance of its (sensate) past, without being able (yet) to define in which direction it wants to evolve.

But the Sixties came and went, to be succeeded by the Seventies (gasp!), the Eighties (ouch!), the Nineties (duh!), the Noughties and whatever moniker the current decade ends up with. So we can take some stock and pass judgment on how well Pitirim’s prediction of turn towards greater level of Ideationalism has stood the test of time. And the summary would be that the judge is still out there on this one. Some elements have kept on deteriorating (like a more and more fragmented art scene, or rather we should say “art market”, which is in and of itself symptomatic of the kind of change it has affected that particular sphere of human activity), whilst some others have pulled together and look Today in a better shape than half a Century ago (Democracy finally vanquished all totalitarianism, prompting some social theorists to postulate an “end of History” that 9/11 of 2001 seemed to disconfirm). I have to admit that I find it difficult to believe that a whole Civilization that has come to be defined mainly by its secularism and its vocal opposition to tradition and absolute values may turn again to transcendence as a guide to earthly behavior and experiment a kind of religious revival. But probably something similar was thought by Romans in the 3rd Century AD (surrounded by materialism, moral decadence and relativism not that different from Today’s), and their whole life perspective was washed away by the Tsunami of Christianity, which most of them had never heard about (being a tiny sect of fanatics professing the most out of the blue beliefs and most alien to the mainstream morality), which then reigned uncontested for more than six hundred years…

Of course, such turn of events would need to take into account the historical novelty of the development (very much coincident with the last sensate cycle) of a single, all-encompassing world system that may give the dominant mentality an inertia and a resilience that previous ones did not have. On the other hand side, the rise of the current sensate system has been much accelerated (and intensified) by the multinational competition within the European System created by the Westphalian treaties, which imposed on the budding Nation States the greatest incentive to become as materialistic and socioeconomically efficient as possible to successfully satisfy the demands of a more and more demanding war machine which required them to be able to field bigger and better equipped armies by the year. As I have pointed in other posts, the completion of the inherent capitalistic drive towards world domination has very much dried up that impulse, as the role of the armies in multinational conflict has mutated from the means of asserting political willpower of the past to a way (highly inefficient and endemically affected by corruption and cronyism) of delaying the unavoidable decline in aggregate demand associated with declining populations (“weaponized Keynesianism”, albeit limited to the few countries who can pay it), whilst the political will is best effected by economical means (paying to get what you want, specially if you have the asymmetrical power to dictate the price, is more convenient than sending the army to grab it). Be it as it may, Sorokin’s work provides a fruitful way to consider new possibilities, and sheds a new light on many contemporary developments that he may not have foreseen, but which may be the harbingers of some of his predictions (from the weak and dispersed signs of religious revival in the West to the allure of religious fundamentalism everywhere else).       

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