The Hula Hoop Theory of History / By Morris Berman

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[Editor’s Note: Those under six decades may have a little trouble relating to Morris Berman’s central metaphor in the following essay.  Those over that magical long-distance run reach back fondly to childhood memories of Davy Crockett “coon-skin” caps, Grand-dad Eisenhower playing golf, and large plastic hoops swirling around lithe bodies.  I recall newsreels of the day showing “hula hoop” contests—to see how long the contestants could keep hoops and hips swiveling; and I recall the especially gifted who could gyrate maybe 100 of the hoops around their bodies at one time.  About a decade later, there were “pet rocks”—little rocks one purchased in a display box.  It was a “pet” that you didn’t have to water or take care of.  I guess our generation needed something jocular to take our minds off the prospect of nuclear annhilation.  How foolish will our current distractions–our fads and fashions– look fifty years from now?  How do our myths and distractions shape and embody the real content of our lives?—Gary Corseri, Associate Editor.]

Above all, no zeal.

   –Talleyrand 

There is a curious rhythm to human affairs, or perhaps more specifically, to Western history.  Some movement or idea comes along, and everyone gets swept up in its wake.  This is it, then; this is the Answer we’ve been looking for.  All of those previous answers were wrong; now, at long last, we’re on the right track.  In the fullness of time, of course, this shiny new idea loses its luster, betrays us, or even results in the death of millions.  So apparently, we were deceived.  But wait: here’s the true new idea, the one we should have followed all along.  This is the Answer we’ve been looking for.  Etc. 

The American writer, Eric Hoffer, described this syndrome nearly sixty years ago in a book that also generated a lot of zeal (for a short time, anyway), The True Believer.  People convert quite easily, observed Hoffer; they switch from one ism to the next, from Catholicism to Marxism to whatever is next on the horizon.  The belief system runs its course, then another one takes its place.  What is significant is the energy involved, not the particular target, which could be anything, really.  For what drives this engine is the need for psychological reassurance, for Meaning with a capital M–a comprehensive system of belief that explains everything.  There is a feeling, largely unacknowledged, that without this we are lost; that life would have no purpose, and history no meaning; that both (as Shakespeare put it) would amount to little more than a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

I call this the Hula Hoop Theory of History, but one could also label it the Pet Rock Theory, or any other craze that grabs our attention for a week or a century.  It has a lot in common with the skeptical thinking of the sixteenth-century philosopher Montaigne, who had a great influence on Eric Hoffer, among others.  In his Essays, Montaigne pointed out that the new sciences of Copernicus and Paracelsus claimed that the ancient sciences of Aristotle and Ptolemy were false.  But how long, he argued, before some future scientist comes along, and says the same thing about Copernicus and Paracelsus?  Do we ever really know the truth once and for all?

One might also call this the Drunken Sailor Theory of History, I suppose.  Reflecting on the first flush of the French Revolution, William Wordsworth wrote: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive.”  After Robespierre, the Terror, and the rivers of blood that flowed through the streets of Paris, however, a sober Talleyrand could only comment that what the human race needed, above anything else, was to stay clear of zeal.  The path from bliss to barbarism may not be linear, but it does seem to be fairly common, historically speaking.

The latest treatise in the Montaigne-Hoffer school of history is that of the British scholar John Gray, Black Mass.  Gray draws liberally on the work of the American historian Carl Becker, whose Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932) has never been surpassed as an analysis of modernity.  Becker claimed that the notion of redemption that lay at the heart of Christianity was recast by the philosophers of the French Enlightenment in terms of progress, or secular salvation.  Enlightenment utopianism, in a word, was the transformation of Christian eschatology into the belief in the perfectibility of man–heaven on earth, as it were.  This would be the Second Coming, the defeat of ignorance and evil (= sin) by means of reliable knowledge, science and technology in particular.

In Gray’s view, the modern “secular fundamentalisms”–Jacobinism, Bolshevism, Fascism, and most recently, globalization–followed directly from this transformation.  The result has been satanic–a black or inverted mass (i.e., one recited backwards)–in that these pseudoreligions have all caused a world of harm.  The one idea common to all of them is that progress and perfectibility are within our grasp, and can be attained through an historical process whereby true knowledge will defeat ignorance (evil).  Thus the world, and our psyches, are saved, no less in the modern secular world than they were claimed to be in the medieval Christian one, because history itself is imbued with Meaning. 

Sad to say, the first three of these secular religions proved, in the fullness of time, not to be the Answer but rather the God that failed; and globalization (Thomas Friedman and his devotees notwithstanding) is in the process of going the same route, revealing itself to be a “false dawn.”  Of course, says Gray, once globalization and neoliberalism are finally exposed for what they are, and take their proper place on the scrap heap of history, it will hardly be the case that we shall abandon notions of progress, utopia, and Meaning in history.  Not a chance.  We in the West will have to find another hula hoop, another pet rock, because as a Christian civilization we are simply unable to live without the myth of redemption.  Hence, he concludes, the “cycle of order and anarchy will never end.” The tragedy is that we “prefer the romance of a meaningless quest to coping with difficulties that can never be finally overcome.”  Hence, “the violence of faith looks set to shape the coming century.”

At the present time, it’s not clear what the next hula hoop will be; but I’m not sure it matters all that much.  If the Montaigne-Hoffer-Gray school of historical analysis is correct, what is certain is that there will be no derailing the zeal in advance, no stopping the next ideological-religious binge at the second martini, so to speak.  The word “some” has very little meaning in the world of secular fundamentalism; for us, it’s all or nothing.  “Man cannot make a worm,” wrote Montaigne, “yet he will make gods by the dozen.”

For it is all a kind of shamanism, in a way, an attempt to become whole through magic.  We are all broken, after all; that is why the promise of redemption has such a powerful hold on us.  “I am he who puts together,” declared one Mazatec shaman, some years ago.  It finally  comes down to a (misguided) attempt at healing, which is reinforced by tribal practice (commonly known as groupthink).  I recall attending a conference on postmodernism in the 1990s and being struck by how similar the lectures were, in form, to those of Communist Party members of the 1930s.  The “holy names” were different–one cited de Man and Derrida instead of Marx and Lenin–but the glazed eyes and the mantra-like repetition of politically approved phrases were very much the same.  Truth be told, I have observed the same hypnotic behavior at all types of academic conferences, from feminism to computer science.  You watch, you listen, and you wonder: When will we finally wake up?  And you know the horrible truth: never.  In effect, we shall continue to erect statues to Napoleon, but never, or rarely, to Montaigne.  This much is clear.

Which brings me to what I consider the bottom line, namely the structure of the brain.  The frontal lobes, the large neocortex that governs rational thinking and logical processes, is a relative latecomer on the scene, in evolutionary terms.  The limbic system, which is the center of impulse and emotion, has been around much longer.  The conflict between the two is perhaps best illustrated by the case of the alcoholic sitting at a bar, staring at a frosty stein of beer in front of him.  The neocortex says No; the limbic system says Go.  Statistically, most drunks die of alcohol poisoning or cirrhosis of the liver; only a very few escape from the siren song of the limbic brain.  As Goethe once put it, “the world is not logical; it is psycho-logical.”  And that is to put it quite mildly, it seems to me.

We will not escape the ravages of climate change; we shall not avoid the economic and ecological disasters that are integral to global capitalism; not be able to avert an oil crisis, an energy crisis, or a food and water crisis that will become extreme when the world population finally arrives at 10 or 11 billion, by mid-century.  These things are not going to be resolved by reason, by the neocortex, no matter how many articles are published on these subjects in learned journals or popular magazines.  And they certainly can’t be resolved by the limbic brain, whose function is indulgence, not restraint.  Hence, it is a fair guess that we shall start doing things differently only when there is no other choice; and even then, we shall undoubtedly cast our efforts in the form of a shiny new and improved hula hoop, the belief system that will actually be the true one, after all of those false starts; the one we should have been following all along.  What to call it?  Catastrophism, perhaps.  Consider this the founding document.

©Morris Berman, 2009

Morris Berman is a cultural historian and the author of Dark Ages America and The Twilight of American Culture.  His work has previously appeared at Cyrano’s Journal Online Showcase.

4 comments on “The Hula Hoop Theory of History / By Morris Berman
  1. Prof. Berman´s meditation on the human brain is informative but a bit limiting in view of his implied direction. The -isms he writes about are abstractions which, as capital M meaning making animals, we humans do with both positive and negative regularity. The positive consequences of this part of our thinking lie in our ability to foresee danger ahead in time, to plan beautiful works of art dedicated to physicalizing our “ideas,” and to adding to the range of human emotions ideas such as “love” or “devotion”. The negative consequences, far too numerous to list here, include the superficial excitement the attention these abstractions give us, an often drug-induced like metaphysical rush that excites us because it is a creation out of the thin air of our consciousness. But this may be a function of a triune brain structure: one reptilian, one mammalian, and one “higher mammal” which consists, in part, of this very ability to create abstractions lower mammals didn’t need or couldn’t develop. Thus the demon here is our very ability to make—and fall in love with—abstract idea(l)s separated from the grittier task of day to day survival and getting along with the creatures around us.
    Once we create those –isms, it becomes easy to detach from human concern and to label “them” as outsiders, empowering us to do all manner of harm to beings otherwise we see as similar to us. I am not suggesting that all violence to other humans (and by extension “lower” animals, the environment, etc.) is rooted solely in our abstracting and thus retreating from otherwise expressed kinship behaviors. I am however, suggesting that a major part of our historical heritage consisted of a closer relationship to the environment and each other than is present today and this is due in no small part to the lack of abstract thought which, once began, served to disentangle us from the web of creation.
    We may see perhaps evidence of this in a history of the commons. While humans have existed in our present form for about 200,000 years,
    the abstract concept of land ownership emerged with the transition from hunting and gathering societies to agricultural societies around 10,000 years ago, the enclosure of the commons, that is, the taking of common land for private commercial use, can be traced back to thirteenth century England. (Shock, Nonviolent struggles to defend & reclaiming the commons, 2007, p. 2).
    This is an incredibly tiny part of our collective history. Once land as “property” as a concept was developed, it became easier to cut ourselves off from each other, begin the great downward slide of “civilization” which elevated “mine” over “ours,” and invent all manner of justifications for large-scale human slaughter. The alternative evolutionary theories of Kropotkin are instructive in this discussion. Admittedly, there are all sorts of contributing factors to this development of an end to the “commons.” These include widespread environmental destabilization and migration patterns that occurred as a result. But while “Eden” may not have existed anywhere or anytime, there does seem to be a preponderance of evidence that the longest lasting form of human relationships exists among hunter-gatherers who shared lives and resources on levels we would find remarkable today. And they had little need for those abstract concepts we all become so enamored with today.

  2. I rarely–if ever–comment on a comment, but I must say I thought Mr. Tirado’s comment here particularly cogent.

    I almost wrote that it’s a perfect coda to Mr. Berman’s piece (which works like a series of successive waves upon the shore of our awareness). But, Tirado provides more than a coda: something more like contrapuntal music taking us in another direction–or opening up to new vista or a new vein of gold in the mine.

    Splendid to find such dialoguing with the text here when so much of Web commentary is vapid, indulgent, or merely abrasive.

  3. After a careful read of Morris Berman’s smoothly argued essay I am at a loss to understand what he recommends –if anything– as a way out to this spiral into a an epochal political quagmire. Frankly, I find that his elegant words hide what the French justly called “immobilisme”—a despair in the face of failed attempts at constructing a better society, but—and this is huge “but”—after all is said and done, if we follow his logic, we end up in the name of historical realism with nothing better than a pernicious form of bourgeois nihilistic liberalism.

    Says M Berman:

    “In Gray’s view, the modern ‘secular fundamentalisms’–Jacobinism, Bolshevism, Fascism, and most recently, globalization–followed directly from this transformation. The result has been satanic–a black or inverted mass (i.e., one recited backwards)–in that these pseudoreligions have all caused a world of harm. The one idea common to all of them is that progress and perfectibility are within our grasp, and can be attained through an historical process whereby true knowledge will defeat ignorance (evil)…”

    It may be rhetorically smart to heap (with a fair dose of contempt) a bunch of “isms” in the same pile, a popular notion in many quarters, including among those who trumpeted (and trumpet) the ‘end of history”…but this is also philosophically sloppy and possibly intellectually dishonest. As a student of history, M Berman knows quite well that context is supreme in explaining outcomes, attributing rights and wrongs, and in general passing judgment on the merit of ideas. “Failure” per se, difficult to debate in the absence of pre-agreed criteria, is not inherently sufficient to condemn an ideology to the dustbin of history. If we were to accept such a position we’d abandon all hope of climbing out of the current muck and perpetuate the current order! That would certainly suit the current “masters of the universe”.

    I further take issue with the author’s implicit admiration for Eric Hoffer. His standing and contributions as a philosopher are negligible, even though his propaganda value to the right (he was given all sorts of medals by none other than Ronald Reagan) was for a moment substantial. His main observation, that “fanaticisms” (itself an invidious label) are interchangeable is scandalously superficial, as turncoats and professional apostates have existed since the dawn of recorded history. In any case, this says nothing about the intrinsic quality of an idea or specific philosophy. Whilst Hoffer was the toast of many supposedly intellectual circles in his time, especially in America and britain, he actually reminds me of the character played by Peter Sellers in Being There, a false oracle for all intents and purposes, but a mighty useful one to the powers that be.

    T. Vlacek, Brno

  4. In my highly personal opinion, the problem with isms (and with Berman’s biological fatalism) is that it is operating within the same conceptual box as the “Western” ideologies he critiques. These isms spring from a common cultural base that conceptualizes the world in a certain way. That way is that “man” is discrete and inherently separate from “the world” (“natural” world). Therefore there are no natural “rules” that apply to humans. Hence someone – or some ideology – must be found to tell “us” what to do. Not all cultures have this fatal flaw, but “Western” traditions certainly do.

    To play on the “psycho-logical” reference, Westerners (and Western societies) chase from one “belief” system to the next because there is an assumption that there is a “special” and “correct” path for humans. There is a further extension that Western categorization and perception is “human” rather than cultural. Explaining away the issue by a brain organization which is driven by “indulgence” simply takes a cultural fault and changes it into a biological fault. What is overlooked in this is that the “indulgence” is manufactured, and could also be called “pleasure.” What is perceived as pleasurable is highly culturally malleable. There is nothing inherently pleasurable about the squandering of resources – unless the society incentivizes it. There is nothing pleasurable about exploitation of others – unless it is hidden or rationalized.

    I do agree that it is highly likely that catastrophe is the likely outcome that MAY jolt Western societies into action. Largely because there are infinite efforts to misdirect people from acknowledging the problems and the source of them. However, this is not a “human” dilemma. It is a cultural dilemma.

    The way forward? We need a change of frame, or definition, or mind, or heart. We need to see our relationship to the world – and each other. Humans are not rulers or proprietors, nor even “stewards” of the world. We are cohabitants on the planet. Some cultures are wise enough to realize this. We just don’t happen to live in one.

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