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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 49, November 21, 2009

Engaging Study of Ongoing Cultural Transformation

Tuesday 24 November 2009, by Sita Ojha

BOOK REVIEW

The Chrysalis Effect: The Metamorphosis of Global Culture by Philip Slater; Sussex Academic Press, Portland, Oregon; 2009; pages 242.

The author through this thought provoking book sincerely endeavours to help us understand the cultural metamorphosis taking place all over the world, to ease the discomfort of living in a time of transition, and to encourage adaptation to the change, which seems both inevitable and also necessary.

Divided into three major parts—the way it works, the effects, and where we are heading—the author unfolds the cultural roots of today’s discontents by comparing the cultural metamorphosis with a caterpillar: the chrysalis affect. The word ‘chrysalis’ is derived from the Greek word, meaning gold. It is the stage in the lifecycle of the butterfly when the caterpillar can no longer be a caterpillar, but is not yet a butterfly. It is a waiting time though not a passive waiting time; an expectant, receptive waiting time. Chrysalis time occurs and reoccurs for humans too: the chrysalis time is a time of change, a vulnerable period; a time when we may discover the utility of living a meaningful, creative, and compassionate life in the world and strive towards action, being inspired by our true self.

The caterpillar through its own action begins spinning a chrysalis which results in a new entity—completely transforming into a beautiful butterfly. The author is convinced that when he makes a comparison between the caterpillar and human culture, how they both evolve and change: “This is much the way the cultures change. When old cultural assumptions are challenged, the innovations are not seen as mere novelties, but as a social ill, a critical moral infection, and attacked as such by the upholders of tradition. And when the budding culture replaces the previous one, it doesn’t create a new way of being out of nothing but merely rearranges old patterns to make the new ones. Just as the caterpillar has held the blueprint for the butterfly all along.” Slater feels that we are in the midst of such a ‘metamorphosis on a global scale’, and we are in the resistance phase, when old cells are perishing at a very fast speed; yet new ones keep appearing with increasing rapidity. And we seem to be confused like the caterpillar.

There is confusion over values, ethical certainty, and a bewildering lack of consensus on almost everything. The cultural influence and practice operating for millennia, which are actually responsible for human disaster, are all being challenged today. The acceleration in social change has been very fast, straining people’s adaptive capabilities. Slater admits that not everyone is overjoyed with this change. Due to rapid technological development merely in a few decades, people have had to adjust to computers, cell phones and the internet, besides the fast-changing status of women, minorities, the global economy, and the increasing insignificance of national boundaries. The caterpillar, which does not know that it will some day turn into a butterfly, was happy crawling and surviving on leaves. Suddenly its world changed completely when it turned into a butterfly and started flying. However, we humans are more aware; we welcome change for a happier future. This is not to deny that human beings are also resistant to change; they like simplicity and permanency in their life and surroundings.

This change is a continuous change, going on for generations, and as per Slater’s research, the pace has accelerated in the last 50 years, ‘creating the most rapid social upheaval in the history of our species’. Slater terms the old system as ‘Control Culture’, depicting deep dependence on authoritarianism. The new system, he calls ‘Integrative Culture’, which aims to dissolve mental walls, having dynamic vision of the universe, a democratic ethos, and sees order as something that evolves from spontaneous interaction.

Control Culture was a warrior culture. Women held a secondary position to that of men, without any freedom of choice. It was a brief phase in human transformation; and, according to the archeological survey, only 8000 years old. People today are undergoing a transition between the two global cultural systems, with opposing values and assumptions: one of them old and dying out, but still tenacious, exhausting itself in ever more violent resurgences, the other in its youth but growing stronger everyday.

The author points out that while the full emergence of Integrative Culture would not solve the world’s problems, it would nevertheless make those solutions possible, since there is no way they can even begin to be solved in the context of Control Culture. With all its side-effects and negativity, Control Culture is a luxury the planet can no longer afford, points out the author. Thus the transformation from Control Culture to Integrative Culture is taking place. As we contribute to the changing of the world, we are also groping our way into awareness that we are part of a whole, consisting of an infinite number of perpetually changing connections.

The first seedlings of Integrative Culture appeared in the 18th century, which could be called the peak of Control Culture. People began to realise that differences in social status did not necessarily reflect differences in ‘character, ability, or moral worth’. It is about embracing and integrating diversity. All the modern developments like women’s movement, global economy, internet, organic farming, growth of international institutions and International Law, etc. are indicative of Integrative Culture. Slater has mentioned four reasons for the growth of Integrative Culture. These are: (a) sharp increase in the pace of technological change, (b) increase in the speed of global communication, (c) awareness of the importance of the well-being of the planet earth, and (d) decreasing utility of war. However, this stage had its own drawbacks. Only men were thought to be created equal; very few radical egalitarians of this period thought that women should be empowered and made free and equal. Pacifism was far from popular, most of the radicals seemed to be enthusiastic about war, and their cries for freedom and equality were couched in military language.

It was much later that women began to fight for adult legal status, education, and right to vote. It was only in 1920 that women were allowed to vote in the USA; in France after World War II and in Switzerland not until 1970. Today, women are more concerned with issues like education, healthcare, environment and equal opportunity.

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, all Controller principles were under assault; every assumption of the Control Culture was questioned, but everything of substance that began in this new period has endured and even expanded. The author has clarified that the Integrative Culture is not merely the undoing of the Control Culture, or that it is a return to the archaic period of pre-Control Culture. Integrative Culture is actually built upon and incorporates Control Culture. Only that it has outgrown a few of the rigidities of the Control Culture.

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Philip Slater calls the present times as an awkward age, where there is growth of Integrative Culture along with simultaneous rise in fundamentalism: “We’ve never been more concerned about our environment, yet never more dependent on it; never more opposed to violence, yet never more fascinated with it;... never more health conscious, yet never more unhealthy. And while we have never had more of connecting with each other, we’ve never felt more disconnected.” It will take a long period, perhaps generations, before Integrative Culture can achieve universality that the Control Culture enjoyed. He feels that Integrative Culture is ‘not only an inevitable development, it is a necessary one’. Development of Integrative Culture may not be a panacea to problems like environmental degradation, global warming, over population, terrorism, economic inequality etc., but it will definitely try to seek solutions.

It is observed that a particular cultural system can make people believe the most bizarre ideas; it can transform the most unpleasant types of behaviour into cherished virtues. For example, today it is hard to believe or understand how people in some culture found virtue in killing a sister or daughter to preserve their family honour on the ground that a man had had sex with her. Similarly, some Christian leaders portrayed celibacy as the highest good. But if this principle had been enforced on everyone, the Catholic Church would have disappeared like the Shakers who never reproduced themselves. The longevity and the continuity of the Catholic Church are due to its ability to absorb contradictory traditions, not its purity. By citing such examples, Slater argues that cultures can survive only when they are impure and reflect inconsistencies and contradictions. When Purists believe they are trying to revive or revitalise a system by calling for a return to basic values or fundamental principles, they are actually smothering it.

Further, Slater gives the example of Nazism as an outcome of controller values. Nazis, as we know, attempted to control every aspect of life; they reduced women to slave, subjected people to an oppressive rule. In fact, Nazis depicted Controller Culture’s ultimate expression. However, he realises that a pure Integrative society is not only non-viable but also not possible to have one; traits such as competitiveness and the desire to control will not disappear; they will merely become less dominant. Similarly, Integrative values were never absent during the Controlled era; they were simply assigned inferior status.

Our attention is also drawn to the reality that all parts of a culture do not necessarily change at the same pace. It is in the second section of this book that Slater tries to focus on this aspect and the effects of cultural change. The contradictions found in each culture are carried forward because of people’s own choice and liking for the old values. The various cultural systems all over the world, it is observed, are modified and adapted in accordance with the local constraints of each society’s culture and sub-culture. While in the West, democracy and feminism are close to achieving butterfly status, in the Middle East and Africa, imaginal cells are still being ‘killed off by Control Culture’s immune system’. In this section, the author takes into consideration examples of Integrative Culture; on gender behaviour, on the way we think, on political and organisational structures, on the way we excerise control, on our approach to making war, and lastly on religious ideas.

In the last section, Philip Slater confronts the question: Where are we heading? He has researched on the American position in the global metamorphosis. The USA, in his view, over the last two centuries has provided the ‘densest concentration of cultural imaginal cells on the planet’. He ponders whether America will be left behind due to the last-minute glitch of imagination. Controller politicians are fond of talking about the American Empire. Looking at this cautiously, Slater asserts that the future is brains, not guns; money, not bullets; communication, not bombs. Failure to invest in this future will mean decay.

The author denies that a ‘culture war’ exists between nations, between religions, or between Left and Right. The conflict according to him is ‘within every nation, every political party, every religious tradition, every institution, and every individual’.

Through this valuable work, Philip Slater has attempted to explore, understand and answer the chaos and conflict prevalent worldwide today. He has convincingly explained the withering away of the Control Culture and the evolving of the new Integrative Culture as a natural process, born out of contradictions inherent in the old system of living. While highlighting the fierce resistance arising out of erosion of the age old tradition and culture, he also concentrates on the subsequent adaptive process, moving towards a new culture, which is most appropriate for the survival of mankind today. Using the analogy between the caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly and the cultural metamorphosis, he concedes that though the journey from tradition to modernity may be painful, it is in this very change that we can see the development and growth of humanity, which needs unlimited communication, integrative thinking, and unlimited cooperation. There are some typographical errors in the book, which need to be looked into.

It is a very profound, provocative and engaging piece of writing, which should be read by all. Philip Slater has indeed made an important contribution to the understanding of the cultural transformation that we are undergoing today.

Dr Sita Ojha is an Academic Associate, International Centre of Gandhian Studies and Peace Research, Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, Gandhi Darshan Complex, Rajghat, New Delhi. She can be contacted at: sitaojha.gsds@gmail.com

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