Letters at 3AM
The Making of a Century
Despite the cacophony of commentary that assaults us, a crucial element of the glory and madness that is our millennial moment is going unnoticed. At the turn of the last century something happened to humanity -- a series of events, that, taken together, are in reality one grand and fate-determining event so mysterious in its origins and so vast in its consequences that it defies analysis and explanation. Our society today is the product of that event, yet it's barely mentioned and no one has come close to understanding it. The best I can do is describe it, attempting at least to make it a part of our millennial consciousness. In the 20-odd years preceding 1900, the telephone, the electric light, the car, and the motion-picture camera were invented -- a kind of prelude to the technological onslaught that was just around the corner. Then in 1898, Marie Curie discovered the elements polonium and radium, and coined the phrase "radioactivity." In 1899, Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, a book that became the ornate, gargoyle-studded gateway to the study and practice of psychology -- an activity that would utterly alter how human beings think of themselves. Also in 1899, and no less momentous, Scott Joplin romped the "Maple Leaf Rag" upon an eager public, forever changing the role of music in our society -- for it was the beginning of a chain reaction that led to jazz, rock, hip-hop and an untamable dance of youth. Finally, in that year, a Pennsylvania engineer named Frederick W. Taylor invented a process for increasing the strength of steel by 300%, making possible 20th-century shipping, construction, and weaponry. In 1900, the physicist Max Planck first proposed the quantum theory; Reginald A. Fessenden transmitted the first speech by radio; and Willis Carrier invented the air conditioner (without which modern cities would not be feasible). In 1903, the Wrights flew the first airplane; the first transatlantic cable became operational; and a sensation-causing 11-minute film called The Great Train Robbery ushered in the popularity of movies, a medium in which human beings began to envision themselves differently, and far more drastically, than they ever had. In 1904, Freud published Psychopathology of Everyday Life, introducing the notion that what we consider "daily life" is madness. (The world failed to welcome this breakthrough.) In 1905, Albert Einstein proposed the theory of relativity. During this period there were also epoch-making discoveries in chemistry, biology, and medicine.
So in just these short years, there was a sudden scattershot burst of innovation more revolutionary, when taken together, than anything before or since. The building blocks of humanity's future were created, suddenly, all over America and Europe, by people without an Internet, who had no unified background of knowledge, from different cultures and areas -- people who never heard of one another, yet were working in concert. For we must judge the source of their effort by its result, and the result was a synergy of innovation that changed the terms by which we live. The effect had a unity, so the cause may be suspected of having a unity: These individuals were nodes of humanity, and it was humanity itself, raw human energy, the collective psyche, that burst upon history through these innovations.
And, since the human psyche is a force of Nature and cannot be separated from Nature, this outburst is the greatest instance in recorded history of Nature transforming itself.
With these creations, the 20th century swooped down upon us like a winged dragon. There is no precedent for this spurt of invention, and no logical reason for it. Human beings with precisely our brain capacities had been walking the planet for at least 200,000 years, and until circa 1800, technological progress had proceeded at something less than a snail's pace. Then invention began to pick up momentum until, suddenly, circa 1900, we started to manifest things we'd never considered, or at best had fantasized. How? Why? We'd been dreaming of flight for many thousands of years, ever since the first human being watched a bird; in 1903, the Wright brothers managed to stay aloft for a hundred or so yards; a mere 66 years later we landed a spaceship on the moon. Humanoids had been bludgeoning each other with blunt objects since before the dawn of consciousness; in 1900 a cannon represented the height of human destructiveness; in 1904, Einstein created the formula E=MC2 and a mere 41 years later we incinerated a city in an instant. There has never been a more drastic increase of human power.
My point is that humanity has not addressed the most important and astonishing event of the modern era, and that event is this: that out of our psyches, suddenly, with no warning or precedent, in a terribly short time, myriad discoveries and insights burst like a great explosion -- an explosion of raw psyche -- and utterly altered our external world. Every one of these inventions and insights, and their resultant modes of behavior -- from the electric light to the theory of relativity to corporatism -- is a product and expression of the human psyche. For what else could they be? We have nothing but ourselves with which to make or unmake a world. And the world we create and destroy is ourselves. (We may take the planet with us, but only by virtue of what we are doing to ourselves.) No biochemistry can explain or even describe this; history and sociology merely give accounts of it; philosophy posits abstractions about it, and then abstracts about its abstractions; who is left, then, to unlock the mystery of this behavior but mystics, artists, and psychologists? I suspect that mystics have the best shot at understanding, but the greatest of them transmit only to a few or else are popularized to the point of platitude. And art -- well, the arts are life's song to itself, and it may be that all thought begins in flashes of art, but thought is not art's job. Artists can invent behavior; a psychologist can't. The strength of psychology as a mode of thought and a means of investigation is that, at its best, its insights are rooted in observed behavior, and its theory must be proved or disproved in terms of observed behavior. The 20th century's explosion of psyche, expressed as technological innovation, is a behavior -- both a collective and individual event of behavior; it is the behavior that has determined everything else, this sudden opening of the human psyche out of which burst all these inventions. But it has been all but ignored as behavior by psychology.
What has the human psyche been up to in creating this era? Psychology ignores the question, which may be why many thoughtful people have begun to ignore psychology. For psychology has come to a conceptual dead end, obsession over symptoms while refusing to deal with the behavior, the collective event, that has created modern life. Psychology, like all the social sciences, is so swept up in the century's acceleration of innovation, and is so much a product of it, that it never addresses accelerated innovation as a psychological event. And the same could be said of the disciplines of history, sociology, the arts, and the so-called "hard" sciences. Perhaps it is impossible to study the explosion if you are, yourself, an element of the explosion.
So where does that leave a definition of "reality" at this Millennium? Reality is that we are, like all who came before us, buffeted by forces beyond our control, and even beyond our comprehension; we are, like all who came before us, both fed and eaten by the era that has created us; and much of what we call our autonomy is merely part of a mass reaction to the instinctual migration through Time that we call "history." But, for all that, we are not passive. Like the electrons that are, at one and the same time, individually behaving particles and collectively behaving waves, our autonomy is not merely an illusion; it is made up of a thousand choices that each of us initiates anew every day, nervy particles of humanity going every which way unpredictably, by hook or by crook and, most of all, by a wounded but ennobled act of choice; while at the same time we are unconsciously and compulsively part of a mass explosion that we choose to call by the polite name of "progress."
For humanity is being propelled by an explosion of the psyche that is expressing itself as compulsive relentless innovation. And until we have some understanding of this, we are all, every one of us, "acting out," acting and reacting unconsciously, in the grip of a collective psychic compulsion that makes hash of our individual needs and desires -- a compulsion that has, paradoxically, given us a world while stripping us of everything but itself, everything but the compulsion. What is it, why is it, what are its roots and mechanisms? Until we can answer these questions in the light of a new understanding, we, as a culture, will continue acting unconsciously, relentlessly, destructively, in the grip of a compulsion for innovation that drags us blindly through our days.
That blind spot, that enormous hole in our consciousness, more than anything else, is the Millennium.
A version of this piece appears as a section of a longer article in The Family Therapy Networker.