MY GENERAL THEORY
Identity equals culture and culture equals mind. A very simple equation!
Since we are uncertain about our origins or those of the universe and, thus, can’t be sure about our collective identity, we define ourselves in terms of our cultural environment. That is what essentially distinguishes us and helps us establish our identity. Race, place and year of birth, the century in which we live — these factors help define who we are. Culture defines our identity. Beyond these basic parameters, our cultural environment plays an even bigger role in establishing our personality and identity. Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung’s work helps us understand that our environment essentially consists of signs, symbols and references harkening back to our deepest origins. Among other things, he brilliantly demonstrates how the signs have evolved through the ages, from one epoch to another, while retaining their profound meaning.
Here, the perspectives of the American anthropologist Edward T. Hall and the Canadian communications guru Marshall McLuhan intersect. Both maintain that the human environment has changed to such an extent that it is taking on astonishing proportions. To McLuhan, technologies have essentially become extensions of our senses; technologies have created the global village and are making us live daily in a universe where the prevailing theme is instantaneity and simultaneity, which the author calls acoustic space. By way of illustration, McLuhan declared with his habitual bluntness that “man is beginning to wear his brain outside his skull....” I would add: our nervous systems are blowing in the wind.
Edward T. Hall’s approach is just as incisive. He sees man as an organism that has created extensions of itself and has brought them to such a degree of specialization that “they have taken over from nature and are rapidly replacing it. In other words, man has created a new dimension, the cultural dimension.” Even more to the point, he asserts, “the relationship between man and the cultural dimension is one in which both man and his environment participate in molding each other.” Hall goes even further in his reflections on culture: he notes with considerable justification that all human culture, expression and projection are representations and manifestations of the mind, of our mind (which is difficult to grasp, very intelligent with a hint of the divine and, above all, unpredictable). So there it is: identity equals culture and culture equals mind. A very simple equation!
What is fascinating is that Hall and McLuhan made these observations over 70 years ago! But what’s happened since? How have things changed? What condition do we find ourselves in today? Impacted by the technological explosion in the knowledge-based economy, our cultural environment has undergone a lightening transformation unparalleled in human history. The volume of information in the global village has reached unequalled levels, encompassing every aspect of human expression and history. All over the planet our collective memory is deploying before our very eyes.
We are living in what I call a Total Memory Environment. Every morning, we wake up in the middle of a worldwide soap opera, the Big Bang Show, in which the story of our origins, our genetic legacy, is part of our daily environment. It’s all around us, omnipresent. This environment surrounds us completely in the simplest possible forms and signs as well as the most basic aspects that we can’t even identify. Unfortunately, we don’t see them as signs. We show a spectacular inability to see how the Total Memory Environment is related to our lives. All we have to work with is the boring, simplified, and practical interpretation that our education has taught us. We can’t get in touch with our true identity. We have simply not been trained or educated to do so. It’s as if the whole society has convinced itself that it’s impossible.
For centuries, we have preferred to remain stuck in the way we see things. For a long time many thinkers believed the Earth was flat. In the last 50 years, science and technology have made immense progress. Yet the only links we are making are the references spoon-fed to us by the consumer society. Obviously, we haven’t practiced thinking otherwise. It seems we’ve all been too busy consuming.
Collectively, we find ourselves in a bizarre situation. Living in a Total Memory Environment has a surprising impact on our individual and collective identity. Yes, individually we’re still the same, our date and place of birth haven’t changed, but collectively, we see that our cultural and educational references have ceased to exist; they can’t cope with the mass of data engulfing us. They have disappeared and been replaced by other references that have already vanished into thin air.
Our identity is in constant mutation. It is caught up in a boiling over of our collective memory like a gigantic volcanic eruption of our origins. Just as technologies are extensions of our senses (hardware), our genetic code has become the supreme cultural factor, the database (software)! DNA is the superstar; it’s all over the TV networks, it’s in every role in every film at the box office, it occupies all of the spots on the charts, and hogs magazine content all over the world. Welcome to the Big Bang Show!
We live in a consumer society that chases profit and performance at all cost. From a very simple, ordered society in the 1950s, humdrum and conservative, we find ourselves today in a paradise of paradox, of triviality, simulation, exaggeration and contradiction. We are star-obsessed, caught up in the cult of celebrity, in which meaning and authenticity have no place because they can’t be bought. Instead of facing its mysteries and enigmas, society wants nothing more than to avoid them. Our entire planet is holding itself hostage. Unfortunately, the education we got as children holds us captive. Society is caught in a trap, and citizens, sitting in ringside seats, are both jailers and prisoners. It would be hard to find a more interactive experiment!
The world is like a vast iceberg. Our inability to make associations, to recognize, understand and incorporate the cultural signs of our collective identity in our environment produces a sort of “mental warming” in every individual and causes what I term a collective psychological drift. Continental drift is nothing compared with this phenomenon. Now, I’d like to cite just a few modern examples of psychological drift: famine, war, idolatry, dependency on others, stress, education, the consumer society, political parties, technocrats, lobby groups, news programs, redundancy, advertising, the omnipresence of American culture, etc.
We’ve all heard the saying "history repeats itself.” When you look at the world, it seems as if history does repeat itself. It’s been doing this for far too long and it’s exhausted; it can’t go on anymore; it’s about to collapse.
Our collective history is thrown in our faces everyday, and there we are gape-mouthed, absolutely out of it. In fact, our incomprehension is a sign that our brain is in a state of memory overload, literally stuck in a veritable jam caused by the convergence of all the elements of our origins, causing a backup of the sewers of our collective unconscious. This “unbearable” condition is at the root of psychological drift. In other words, the whole of human evolution is in profound crisis. What a way to start the century!
The psychological drift engulfing humanity is clearly not a new phenomenon. It did not suddenly materialize in the latter half of the 20th century. On the contrary, the situation has endured since the dawn of time. The enormous accelerator effect of recent technological development has made the drift more evident, more palpable. What is new about psychological drift is its proximity, clarity, omnipresence and the fact that we can observe, describe and talk about it. This “sudden appearance” is an alarm, signaling the clear urgency to act before the sky falls on our heads.
Today, we face a daunting challenge. How can we emerge from a state of total incomprehension about our environment and begin to decipher it? How can we integrate into our everyday identity the historical elements that confront, expose, and even bombard us daily? If we understood these signs, how would it influence our lives? How would processing 15 billion years of data on our evolution impact the 21st century? These questions are fundamental because we must find a solution, change our way of doing things, and innovate. Something within us is growing impatient, telling us the time has come ...
The crisis in human evolution, or rather our understanding of the crisis, leaves us no choice but to recognize that we have reached the end of a lengthy exercise. We are approaching the end of the world, the end of a world, of a way of viewing life, people and ourselves. The only historical narrative we know is a hodgepodge of scientific theories based on a game of “guessing who’s that skeleton” reeking of carbon, juxtaposed with a nice Biblical tale like Adam and Eve that only complicates matters. Is this the best we can do? Between us, it’s hardly the way to go about things. It has brought us here, but it’s a dead end.
We have to change the way we see things and give ourselves the means to interpret the information in our environment. It’s time to move on to something else; it’s time for evolution to “evolve”! On closer inspection, I realize that we are in the midst of a huge experiment that seems to have gone haywire and is crying out for repair! Fortunately, the experiment contains every aspect of the problem and every ingredient to solve it. I truly believe there is a solution.
We can console ourselves with the thought that in the coming decades, in the future, major changes and discoveries will transform the way our societies are organized. We can no longer put things off; it’s too late to procrastinate! So we need to accept our responsibilities here and now. Becoming aware is not enough; we must individually and collectively claim this state of awareness, nurture it and preserve it.
Living in the Total Memory Environment means we must get a better grasp of the real meaning of life, people, events, our work, our family, our relations, our decisions, our personal odyssey, and, above all, our choices. Before doing anything else, we must solve the problem and complete the exercise. We have homework to do.... We cannot naïvelyslip through time and history, stick our heads in the sand or play the fool. Warning to those concerned: the game’s over!
In ancient Greece, 2500 years ago, philosophers considered that it was the responsibility of the individual to recover the memory of our origins. Today, it has become a collective phenomenon in which we must participate. In the world today, we have no alternative.
Does this story ring a bell?
Carl Gustav Jung
Edward T. Hall
...our collective memory is deploying all
over the planet before our very eyes.