Mimetic Culture, Fascism and Spirituality

The Canadian cognitive scientist Merlin Donald, in his book Origins of the Modern Mind, suggests there are three stages to human cognitive development.

The first stage is mimetic culture. This goes back hundreds of thousands of years, and is rooted in pre-linguistic cultural modes of being. Before humans could speak, they had elaborate social interactions: dancing, hunting, caring for each other, burials, cooking, etc. We see a variant of this even in individual human growth. My 18 month daughter can say a few words, but has a lively cognitive, emotional presence: hugging, laughing, pointing, playing, crying, wanting and so on. As the philosopher Wittgenstein said, cognition is rooted in forms of life, and according to Donald, at the foundation of our forms of life is mimetic interactions. We understand each other not because we first understand the words spoken and then infer the inner emotions. We grasp first the emotional presence of each other – our emotional being with each other – and the linguistic understanding builds on top of that. Therapists would say the same thing.

The second stage is mythic culture. Historically this arose after the rise of systemic language use about 50,000 years ago. Whereas in the mimetic stage culture is fundamentally behavioral – a kind of moving together – once there is language, the moving together is oriented around mythic stories about the world. This was the origin of talk of Gods and seeing the world as inhabited by spiritual forces. The ancient religions we normally think about (Hinduism, Judaism, etc) are only three to four thousand years old (or younger as with Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, etc.) and are really the latter stages of the mythic culture, which goes back at least to 45,000 years earlier.

The third stage is theoretic culture. Here language becomes externalized through writing, which leads to a self-consciousness about our representations. Whereas in the mythic stage, human consciousness is seen as coextensive with the world (the structure of society and the world map onto each other), in the theoretic stage these two start to come apart. There was an explosion of theoretic culture through out Eurasia (in China, India, the Middle East and Europe) in the Axial age about 2,500 years ago, which is the dawn of modern societies as we think of them, with science, philosophy and politics. It is also the dawn of modern spirituality, where wisdom and mindfulness get separated from mythology.

Often religious people and atheists conflate mythology and spirituality, as if spirituality is a feature of mythic culture. For the religious person this means spirituality can only be found through mythological stories. For the atheist this means theoretic consciousness requires leaving spirituality behind.

Both are wrong. Spirituality as captured in the Book of Job in the Old Testament or in the Upanishads or in the Tao Te Ching is actually a consequence of the theoretic culture. The theoretic culture draws a conceptual distinction between the world and human categories. Hunter-gatherer and even early agricultural societies already knew that the world was much bigger than human beings – that is an obvious fact of life. But for them the understanding of the world beyond humans was itself in human terms. In the Axial age, this came apart – and it culminated in the modern scientific revolution 400 years ago where in modern physics the world was understood in primarily mathematical, and not human, intentional, terms. Spirituality is the interior dimension of this theoretic mode of being. Whereas physics sees the outer world as independent of human perspective, the spiritual person like the Buddha sees the inner world of the mind with detachment and as independent of human needs.

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Like many, I was horrified to see the mob of Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol. In terms of law, they should be held accountable. In moral terms, they are wrong. But it is worth going beyond the legal and moral domains to understand what is happening at a psychological level. Not an individual psychological level, as in each person who stormed the Capitol should see a therapist. But at a socio-cultural-psychological level. At the level of the mimetic-mythic-theoretical forms of our society.

What is America? For white nationalists, America is a white, Christian country. For others, America is a land of liberty irrespective of race, religion, national origin, etc. Like many, I think the latter is right: that is the America I want to see, and the sense in which I am an American.

It is hard to have a debate about this disagreement because debate presupposes a shared mode of thinking of America. The people who stormed the Capitol are holding onto mimetic and mythic forms of America they grew up with, and which they see the theoretic conception of America as displacing. They don’t want to see America defined in an abstract way as something independent of its historical mimetic and mythic culture – which identified America with white people.

The trouble for the Trump supporters – whether they are white, brown or black fighting back against political correctness – is that the founding of America was itself rooted in the theoretic culture. The Founding Fathers were resolutely Enlightenment thinkers, who brought the modern, scientific, rational perspective even to politics and culture, and in the process helped create a new, theoretic concept of the nation. For Hobbes, Locke and Kant, and for Washington, Jefferson and John Adams, the nation wasn’t an extension of a people organically tied by historical, cultural bonds. That would be an entirely mimetic conception of a nation. Nor did they think of a nation as bound by a shared religion, as in a theocracy. That would be a mythic conception of a nation. The Founding Fathers were trying to get away from such mimetic and mythic conceptions, for they saw a nation as a new type of social organization: one in which people gave each other freedom to have their own mimetic and mythic cultures. This is naturally not possible if the very idea of America was rooted in a particulat mimetic or mythic culture.

The founding of America was not unique in this way. The modern concepts of nation in England, France, the Netherlands and so on were being reinterpreted in precisely this way in the 17th and 18th centuries. And it happened with Germany and Italy in the 19th centuries. And Russia in the early 20th century. And with the colonized countries with their freedom in the mid 20th century.

This is why there is such a deep link between fascism and fantasy – or between fascism and conspiracy theories. In Germany, the Third Reich was supposed to be an extension of the First Reich of The Holy Roman Empire from the 9th century and the Second Reich of the unified German Empire in the late 19th century. On Hitler’s telling the problem was the cosmopolitan, globalist Weimar Republic after WWI. But the problem is actually much deeper. It is that the concept of Germany which Bismarck unified was already deeply influenced by the modern concept of a nation-state. What Hitler was projecting was a fantasy of a Germany where the mimetic, mythic and theoretic conceptions of Germany all line up. In effect, a modern, technologically superior Reich for the next thousand years which also keeps entirely in tact the mimetic links to the past thousand years. Here both the future and the past have to be fitted into the psychological needs of the present. Like the religious fundamentalist, the fascist leader is by necessity a modern figure who has to use mythologizing and fantasy to be seen as a link to the glorious past.

The people who stormed the Capitol seemed confused – as is inevitable with a mob. Part of them wanted to destroy the place as sign of modernity, and so break the windows and doors. But part of them wanted to respect the place, and walk within the lines in the hall of statutes. They wanted to smash the globalist surface while preserving the nationalist essence. And yet the statues they have to respect – of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln – were of people who were some of the leading modernists of their time! It’s like if a hundred years from now people stormed the Capitol to preserve the ancient legacy of Obama and Bernie Sanders.

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In mythic culture, the categories of the human society and the world are the same. The very stories that tell us how the world began and the nature of life also tell us who to marry and how to organize our societies. Theoretic culture shows this to be a fantasy: that the categories of human society and the world as such can come apart.

Fascism is a different kind of fantasy. It is the fantasy that the mimetic, mythic and theoretic cultures can all perfectly align. That the achievements of science, technology and progress can be had without losing in any way the past which one loves. That if the alignment is hard, it is not because of internal tensions between one’s mimetic, mythic and theoretic cultures, but because they – the bad people – are messing it up. Left to ourselves, we can grow into the future with our past intact. This is the reason the modernity symbolized by social media is essential to Trump. It fosters the fantasy of the natural extension of the glorious past into a glorious future.

Correlated with – and opposed to – the fascist fantasy is a leftist fantasy. On this fantasy, if we just let go of the past mythic culture, then the theoretic culture can provide the foundation for entirely new mimetic and mythic cultures of equality. The clearest version of this fantasy was with the totalitarian practices after the French Revolution, in communist USSR, and the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China. But we can easily imagine liberal democratic versions of this fantasy. On this version, if only we changed our mimetic practices in the right way and if only we told the mythic stories with the right people as heroes, then we can create a new America where the mimetic, mythic and theoretic would be in harmony. And if we don’t achieve this harmony, it is because they – the bad people holding onto the bad past – are getting in the way.

The deep insight of Axial age spirituality is that the mimetic, mythic and theoretic modes of our consciousness never completely align. This is not because bad people are messing it up. Or because the world is tragically flawed. Rather, it’s because when one is focused not just on the world or on society, but is self-aware of the natural flux of one’s own mind, then one sees that an uncritical desire for alignment in one’s mind itself leads to disharmony.

The way that the early scientists saw that the natural world doesn’t map onto human categories, so too early spiritual thinkers saw that the human mind itself doesn’t map onto human needs. It’s not that the world outside is chaotic while the world inside is easily understood in terms of our desires and ideals. That assumption of the simplicity and natural coherence of the human mind is what drives fantasies, be they political and personal: of course I know what I am thinking! What I want! What I deserve! What is right for me! My mind is self-luminous and I see it clearly! The only way to preserve the fantasy of my self-knowledge is to project the lack of such self-awareness onto others, and to see them as the problem.

There is another way. It is to turn the theoretic gaze not just towards the world, but towards myself, and to the inner tensions between my mimetic, mythic and theoretic modes of awareness. Such self-awareness can transform not just my theoretic understanding of myself, but also my mode of being with others – and so change my mimetic and mythic modes of being.

Trying to change only the outside is like watering the garden with a hose full with holes. Becoming aware of one’s own inner tensions while interacting in the world is like watering the garden with a hose without holes.

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