excerpts from “Unchaining Human Ecology,” part two

tumblr_mhvlo9PcWR1rt8oemo1_500Nature and Madness contains the most thorough fleshing out of Paul Shepard’s theory of normative human psychological development and its centrality to human ecology.  In it, he argues that our material disconnection from the natural world ensures that all of the inhabitants of industrial civilization are in some way sick.  The pathological tendencies induced by civilized life are expressed as arrested development at various stages of immaturity, whether displaying warped holdovers of infantile or adolescent behavior.  Particularly troubled individuals may succumb to behavior destructive of self and others as an attempt to block the awareness of feelings of disorder and fear resulting from an insufficient guidance by culture.  Shepard’s paradigm names features of a healthy guiding culture such as:  a sufficient mother-infant bond, successful rearing of the very young in a world populated by living non-human presences, immersion in the taxonomic classifications and diverse inter-relations of such presences, rituals for initiation into adolescence and adulthood, and the benevolent presence of wise elders.  Each new phase draws upon and enlarges the significance of what came before.  For example, initiation rituals use the content of earlier experience in the non-human world to “affirm the metaphoric, mysterious, and poetic quality of nature.”  In this way, the ecological relationships both observed and engaged in throughout early life with plants, animals, landforms, stars, other humans, and so on, will form an “external model of order.”  Shepard continues, “If the ritual basis of the order-making metaphor is inadequate, the world can rigidify at the juvenile level of literalism, a boring place, which the adult will ignore as repetitive or exploit as mere substance.”  Here, Shepard is striking upon the origins of modern attitudes toward nature in a much more profound and plausible way than any history of ideas is capable of.

Speaking of ideas, in the adequately-ordered world of our Pleistocene heritage, Shepard conjectures that there is no concept of wilderness, as there is no concept of the tame.  Perhaps this is because the only true power over the material world is handicraft, conceived as reciprocal relationship, and has little in common with the dominance of domestication and the even more total control of minute aspects of life to which it has given rise.  In fact, if it is true that in such a world, custom and persuasion are the only authorities that the child will encounter, that the diverse forms of nature all around provide models for relationships friendly or contentious, and that the nomadic nature of one’s people conveys both an immediate and cosmic sense of being in transit in the world, a guest rather than a master, receiving food as a gift rather than a manufactured item– then we may see in this human ecology at least the partial satisfaction of Bradford’s criteria for a socially-conscious ecology, a “humanized” relation to nature.

In fact, after elaborating on the sources of his thought on proper psychological development, Shepard describes the fully mature human as one who approaches the non-human world “as both instrument and counter-player, gift and home, and particularly not as an escape from or alternative to interpersonal or social relationships,” and continues shortly thereafter:

There is also inherent in maturity an acceptance of ambiguity, of the tensions between the lust for omnipotence and the necessity to manipulate, between man as different and man as a kind of animal, and especially between a growing sense of separateness of the self and kinship to the Other, achieved through an ever-deepening fullness of personal identity, defined by a web of relationship and metaphorical common ground.

Human ontogeny sets an extended timetable or calendar for developmental growth phases, expressed as a neotenic preparation for mature life, and does so because this was adaptive to the prehistoric reality of our ancestors.  It was beneficial for the nomadic foraging band in the world they inhabited.  Our conundrum is that the dance of neoteny and ontogeny is maladaptive to the world of artificially-imposed scarcity that we have inherited.  It is variously interrupted, ignored, torn asunder, or arrested at an early stage whose attendant outlook is appropriate to a certain age but, lagging into an inappropriate one, may be yoked into the service of the agenda of the powerful, or the increasingly autonomous machine culture that now serves as the order-making metaphor of the world, the model we strive to emulate.  Free and intact, mature human beings could not submit themselves to the madness of civilization.  On the other hand, pathologically infantile or adolescent traits are more adaptive to this culture:  “fear of separation, fantasies of omnipotence, oral preoccupation, tremors of helplessness, and bodily incompetence and dependence” all make for much more pliable modern subjects.

For Shepard, the progress of civilization is the progress of alienation from the natural world and from the possibility of the mature self.  Leadership roles throughout this sordid history became increasingly crystallized, arbitrary, authoritarian, and separated from the crass, vulgar bottom of the pyramid, the tangled mass of humanity bolstering the whole hierarchical ensemble.  An implication we may draw from Shepard is that this transformation of leadership qualities reflects the occupation of such roles by individuals increasingly damaged or stunted, forming a negative feedback loop between personal immaturity and social and environmental malaise corresponding to the level of interference with normal human ontogenic development that a given society produces.  Shepard has speculated that this change may have happened gradually or exponentially, having started almost imperceptibly in the events of proto-domestication, as well as in early cultivator societies that continued to incorporate hunting, thereby retaining significant vestiges of the metaphysics it yields.

In our own era of industrial and post-industrial society the feedback has reached fever pitch.  The historical passage leading to the present is littered with casualties of botched development.  It has seen the normally temporary and healthy traits of adolescence, such as a penchant for group loyalty and high idealism, conscripted into fidelity to a chieftain, king or company, or to nationalistic war fervor or gang affiliation.  And now the juvenile will to destruction, contrarianism and total control is manifested in those whose hands are on levers of power made possible only by the most extreme global division of labor yet attained, and with heretofore undreamed consequences:  corporate executives, political leaders, technocrats, soldiers and police outfitted with the most sophisticated and the most destructive techniques and weaponry ever produced.  It is also manifested in the vast powerless mass, groping in the dark for individual meaning and communal solace in a post-Pleistocene shell of a world:  lonely homemakers living in quiet desperation, scorned lovers turned into domestic violence cases, resentful television-addicted  revolutionaries, and the most well-meaning and peaceful advocates for social change.

The “progressive peeling back of the psyche” preventing us from reaching each successive vista of fully embodied wisdom is a slashing and burning of our ecstatic, wild growth:  It renders the ground of our being fertile for the bland, domestic products which are domination of the Other and repression of the self, engendering a complacency with environmental mediocrity that exceeds idiocy. The toxic blooms of civilization sap our robusticity so that we lose:  first, our capacity for true elderhood, the acumen and calm of grown-ups at home in the cosmos; next, the conflictual adventurousness, solitude, and even the competency of the adolescent; and finally, the very passion and presence of the relatively helpless infant.  We demand our thinking, our dreaming, our living be done for us or not at all.  Floating, inert, in an amnion of simulation we are irritated, terrified and enraged at the suggestion of movement, and flooded with cathartic feelings whenever delivered from it by deity or leader or routine.  We shrink from any light bright enough to suggest exposure but also from the shadows that hold the decay of pungent, disintegrating matter.  We plod onward through Time, unworthy of birth and of death, but always with the “deep grief we learn to misconstrue.”

Paul Shepard’s reputation as a doomsayer must have been earned both by his lack of confidence in the institutions of modern society, including the sacred cow of agriculture, and by the bleakness of his diagnosis of life without the essential elements of the Pleistocene paradigm.  The typical response evoked by either of the two sides of this coin is the accusation of romantic sentimentalism, of starry-eyed, idle pining by willfully-depressed primitivists for a past that doesn’t truly exist or cannot be recovered.  In a compilation of his own writings that Paul Shepard edited shortly before passing away, he responds firmly to the perennial admonition offered by the panoply of progressives, conservatives, liberals, radicals, the chorus singing “you can’t go back.”  He writes, “It is not necessary to ‘go back’ in time to be the kind of creature you are.  The genes from the past have come forward to us.  I am asking that people change not their genes but their society, in order to harmonize with the inheritance they already have.. Hidden from history, this secret person is undamaged in each of us and may be called forth by the most ordinary acts of life.”  With characteristic cogency and salience, Shepard sums up his ultimate optimism:  his belief that the only healthy culture of human beings, the standard by which all dis-ease is apprehended, could be communicated to ourselves and each other in ecstatic preparation for its re-arising.


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