Thursday, August 8, 2013

Unwinding Progress


A dragonfly studies me from the clothesline

The conversation about Progress as a civil religion continues at the Archdruid Report.

In the spirit of his critique that Progress is falling, I'll no longer refer to Progress as a grand narrative, civil religion, or ideology.  Instead I'll start calling it a "tradition." As in, 

"traditions of progress are being increasingly called into question by young people, who want more practical and up to date ways of dealing with the world." 

"steeped in the time-worn traditions of Progress, nation-states were woefully unprepared to deal with a changing world."

There's something elegant about using a tradition’s own most insidious insinuations against it.

This week, the Archdruid continued his lecture about the difficulties of unwinding our traditions of Progress, making a target of scientists, who are arguably some of its high priests and beneficiaries.  As the broken promises about jetpacks and flying cars become an iconic refrain for an anxious population, he argues that big, institutional science is liable to go down with its church.

This was my rejoinder:

A couple of years ago I was research director for a project that looked into to how to build support for the arts as a public good. One of the striking findings was that the old narrative of the arts as central to “culture” (in its original sense of something that grows and progresses) had vanished from the public consciousness almost without a trace (in the Midwestern US in any case). This formerly widely held idea that arts could lead to a kind of moral or other kind of “elevation” survived only among a small stratum of the elite. For the rest, the arts might be interesting or entertaining or a chance for people to show off a skill, but it wasn’t a public matter and certainly not important to the “development” of your city or your nation. In effect, “Progress”, had died out in this realm practically without the public noticing.

In order to rebuild a sense of arts as a public good, we found that talking about the “ripple effect” of arts in a community brought people back on board. That is, art events – whether you cared to be there or not – made your community a better place to live, knit people together and enriched a shared conversation, and so on. It is a pivot that will warm an art booster’s heart, but it no longer has anything to do with Progress.

My point with this tangent, is that I strongly suspect that Progress is going to slip away from science as well, perhaps similarly unremarked by the public at large. And to the extent it persists, science, practical, useful science will be valued not as the heroic engine of Progress, but as a practice, and a method, and a toolkit that can make that community and that place that you value, better.

I’m a bad gardener, because I’m a bit too much of an experimenter, and tend to value a lesson learned more than a full basket of cucumbers -- but I’m sure if I had to buckle down I could use some science to create some more constructive ripples in my gardening community.


  1. Andy
    What did you think about Sophie Gale's comment? Is it a 'class matter' in the USA? Or his her area just old-fashioned with some talented citizens who can engage with local identity and thereby pull in the funding?

    Phil (Britain)

    1. Well, the point I was trying to make is that practices that have been entangled with Progress (like the arts and the sciences) can still retain a kind of dynamism and strength when that connection falls away. Especially if they deliver on what people value - in this case making their local community a better place to live. Sophie Gale seems to feel that that has happened where she lives and you can see what joy it gives her. Now, no one is likely to discover a new quasar through Peoria's telescopes, but JMG is hard at work trying to convince us that that is not the point.

    2. Andy
      Thanks for reply.
      Yes, Sophie does seem to find a different and welcome point to being in America, though JMG is still painting a darker picture of the surrounding American Empire consuming disproportionate shares of the world's limited resources, as Empires do while they last. In that sense, Peoria's glade is not just an enchanted space for looking at the stars?

      You are the only cultural anthropologist I have come across, so please forgive my quiz. I have come back to your blog just now because I accidentally read this paper this morning (Megoran). It seeks to rather differently examine Revelation and Christian Apocalyptic movements in the light of peace-activist (Berrigan et al) identification of Babylon/Rome with America, and of Christian reminders of the defeat of Satan and death. I thought it might be of passing interest. Berrigan has referred to the Pentagon and CIA HQ as ‘manifestly wicked, dedicated as they are with seemingly endless and persistent ingenuity to works of death’.

      I much prefer JMG's writing style, and have enjoyed his many accounts of failed end-times prophecy. How relevant though is this kind of scholarship (Megoran) and its take on the shifting sands of magic interpretation of American institutions and destiny in the light of geopolitics? 'Modernism' is one term for where many of us live - but is Megoran trying to prepare us for something different, as I believe JMG is attempting with his Stoicism and mostly fairly factual observations, and with his historical parallels with Rome and the Dark Ages West?

      PS We have been picking fruit here as if we were survivalists! And there is a wonderful apple crop to come which contrasts with a lean time last year.
      Phil H

    3. I like to think that places like Sophie's sliver of Peoria are destined to be more resilient for having used some of the era's surplus to build community connections.

      As for your other question, based on a quick scan of Megoran I'd say I'm sympathetic to the idea that in the public discourse a caricature of fundamentalism gets tossed around pretty carelessly. And it suits many people to exaggerate their power and influence. But on the other hand . . .

      Here's my take on this kind of thing. Compare Kazakhstan and Yugoslavia in the late 1980's. Both were "modern" places. Both places had very similar ethnic, religious and linguistic fault-lines. In both places these had been purposely subdued by the state, people had been mixed geographically somewhat, but the fault lines were alive and well in the culture as a way through which people understood and categorized one another. In the 1990's a new state had to be concocted in both places. In Kazakhstan the government had no desire to see anyone exploit the fault lines and so people went about their business in the midst of a chaotic economic free fall. In the new states of the former Yugoslavia, political entrepreneurs saw their opportunity in fomenting ethnic and religious warfare and so the place devolved into genocidal dystopia. Left to their own devices the average person in Serbia would not have massacred their neighbors, but they could be maneuvered to that, and they were. Kazakhstanis could have been maneuvered that way, but weren't.

      I think the scarier aspects of fundamentalist Christianity are pretty subdued and harmless in the vast majority of church-goers. And I think they are likely to stay that way - just as an ugly inter-ethnic history in Kazakhstan remained unimportant to the average person. Nevertheless, a concerted effort by powerful political entrepreneurs could use that underlying base for some serious mischief if the conditions were right. Other leaders might just as well use fundamentalist Christianity to more constructive ends - it has plenty of anti-consumerist and collectivist tendencies as well that could serve people well in a time of economic hard times. JMG has indicated as much in his hints about monasticism.

      So that's my take on it.

  2. Andy have you read Tom Wessels' "The Myth of Progress?" You probably have. Anyway, an interesting post.

    1. Dirtynailz, I'm glad you found it of interest. I figure you come by for the garden blogging, so I'm glad the other musings don't put you off ;-) I haven't actually read Wessel's book - maybe I should see if I can track down a copy (and the hours to read it).