Linear Narratives, Cyclical Narratives


“Meaning making begins in wounding. And the process of meaning making is wounding.”

Robert Osi

“Sometimes your storyline is the only line you have to Earth.”

Sharon Dubiago

The notion that time moves in a linear fashion is so deeply rooted in the narrative of modernity that to step out of that notion is superbly difficult. Consider only the formidably suggestive force of our timekeeping: Every solar cycle that passes is checked off our calendars as one year further removed from time 0. Whether we are Christians, Muslims, Jews, whether we experience the religious alongside a Northern Norwegian salmon stream, on the ocean shore in the Pacific Northwest, or in a Roman cathedral, whether we are scientists, teachers, doctors, fishermen, or historians, the vast majority of us tacitly, and uncritically, adopts the notion that we really, truly live in the year ‘x’ after Christ, another pearl on an very long string of successive events that had a definite, singular beginning. It is simply the way things are. It is simply part of the story we inhabit.

The force of the linear narrative works at vastly different levels of engagement, with signs that sometimes are subtle and sometimes blatant, from the personal to the historical. Take wrist-watches. Early watches still emulated the roundness of the earth; their minute and hour fingers returning periodically to where they had left off, signifying the ongoing dance between night and day, a dance with no specific beginning or end. They signified an ever-moving state of transition, a passage, a simultaneous departure and return that was not entirely separate from spherical shape of the planet itself. With the introduction of digital timekeeping, time itself seems to have been removed a little further from the corporeal roundness of the planet. The digital instrument no longer points immediately to that which it signifies (this ongoing, ever-new changeover between night and day), but points rather to its own semantic situation, which is now categorically removed from the journey of the sun across the day sky, and the moon across the night sky. The digital wrist-watch is more self-referential than earlier analogous watches. Time is that which ticks away on the LED. And in the process, time is experienced a little less cyclically, and a little more linearly.

The notion that time moves in a linear fashion also informs a certain understanding of the totality of human history. According to a particular understanding of human history, ‘humans’ made a qualitative leap from the life of hunters and gatherers to the life of agriculturalists sometime soon after the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. Students of anthropology are taught that this marks the transition of the Paleolithic to the Neolithic ‘Age’ of human history. Students of geology are taught that this same time marks the transition of the Pleistocene to the Holocene. Agricultural societies with their domesticated plants and animals, their permanent habitation, and their surplus food grew very quickly, and out of them emerged the city-states, also known as civilizations. The transition from bands of hunters and gatherers to sedentary city state societies also saw a remarkable ‘advancement’ of technological ingenuity, which, as the millennia ticked away, led to an accelerating speed of invention, bringing about ever more sophisticated and powerful technology at ever faster technological intervals. The movement towards more complex and powerful technology is seen in this narrative as a rise, and the time we presently inhabit is the pinnacle of technological achievement. We live in a high-tech age, the story goes, at the provisional end point on this linear arrow that points ever upwards. And sure enough, there is no lack of philosophical justification for this linear notion of time. Its most poignant justification to-date is captured in a one-word formula of lasting appeal: progress. The idea of progress has made a fabulous career since the intellectual movement that became known as the Enlightenment. Here is Benjamin Franklin, who lamented in a letter in 1780: “The rapid Progress true Science now makes, occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born so soon.”[1] A hundred years before Franklin, the French philosopher Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle had published a pamphlet called Digression on the Ancients and the Moderns. In it he argued that indeed progress in the arts and sciences is both open-ended and necessary and proceeds according to laws of its own, having nothing to do with the efforts of particular thinkers. Fontenelle’s argument added a significant new dimension to the idea of progress. Bacon’s conception was voluntaristic, in the sense that a conscious reformation of the mind would produce the deliberate establishment of scientific and political institutions to produce material and moral progress. With Fontenelle we see the first appearance of the idea that progress is an historical process that moves as a force on its own, independently of human will, and that it can be traced in the record of human history and seen in one’s own time.[2]

‘Progress’, the word, has wielded a certain kind of magic. At least since de Fontenelle’s days the word has signified a movement away from an inferior state towards a superior state. It has signified that “fulfillment of the millenarian promise of restored perfection” that Bacon envisioned. By now it presents itself as so self-evident as to be (nearly) accepted as true without controversy, an axiom of the narrative that drives industrial civilization. Who wouldn’t want to have the promise of restored perfection fulfilled? Who wouldn’t want to progress into a life more abundant, better, happier? The magic of the one-word charm is in the power to captivate, to hold the attention, to fuel dreams, and to absorb the imagination unto itself. Its magic lies in the assurance that however wretched the past may have been, a better time is always just ahead. It is the proverbial carrot in front of the donkeys’ wagon, and the wretched donkeys pull along the traveling circus that is industrial civilization with remarkable endurance.

However, there are at least three problems with the notion of progress and its language of hope and possibility.

The first is that it points to a deeper lying dissatisfaction. The idea that what is ahead will be better can only have appeal when you are equally wrapped up with the idea that the status quo is somehow not good enough. Only if the present is deficient – if what you have, whoyou are, and where you are is somehow inadequate – you will be attracted by the prospect of transcending your situation. Consider this in historical terms. When the Catholic Church broke up during the Reformation and Europe sank into the traumatic woes of war, disease, and famine, when a third of the continent’s people died in battlefields, bled to death, or starved to death, the comprehensive narrative that the Church had offered became problematic to some. Thomas Berry has said: “The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation.”[3] This was such a crisis. Francis Bacon’s wish for restored perfection is indicative of a time when Europe’s psyche was bleeding from a deep, open wound, and looking desperately for ways to heal. The search was on for a different story, a story that would allow people to move beyond the injuries. If the scientific method was the tool for bringing that new story about, then the notion of progress became the very story-line. And the title of the story would be ‘modernity’.

The second problem is that the storyline of progress and its insistence on linearity also reveal a deep arrogance in those who tell the story. The notion that human history can be told as a singular, linear process in which all humans pass through a succession of different ‘ages’ grossly misrepresents the vast diversity of human cultures at every moment in the past, including these present days. A particular number of cultures transitioned from the lives of hunters and gatherers to those of agriculturalists in the wake of the last ice age. Very many others did not. The Lower Elwha Klallam of the Olympic Peninsula, for example, might have never transitioned – they might have never ‘progressed’ – were it not for the forceful intrusion into their homelands by outsiders who had brought the story of modernity with them. There are human cultures who willingly refuse to transition to this very day, such as the Pirahã of the Amazon forest. Terms such as ‘Paleolithic Age’ or ‘Neolithic Age’ are problematic because they ascribe singular importance to the chronology of a limited number of human cultures over all others, defining a normative. By that normative, it would make sense to say that cultures such as the Pirahã have ‘not yet’ transitioned. But in the brief expression ‘not yet’ lie latent all the woes of colonialism. Unsurprisingly, the words are flattering only to those who call the game. Unsurprisingly also, the expression ‘primitive culture’ is commonly equated with ‘lagging behind’, or with ‘underdeveloped’. This last point is remarkable insofar as the word ‘primitive’, etymologically speaking, means ‘original’, and a primitive culture is simply a culture who has maintained a sense of continuity from its perceived origins to the present day. One of the recurring themes of my dissertation work is that silencing others shows itself to be a universally effective way of conquering victims, both human and other-than-human. Telling history as a monolithic succession through different ages is a form of silencing, and of colonizing, at the same time as it is a way of justifying the narrative of the conquerors.

The third problem is that the storyline of progress as it is currently told cannot succeed. It is a textbook tragedy where there will be only losers. Some losers are more evident than others. Those in the margins will suffer, those who do not (yet) participate in progress, but who already feel the mounting pressures of a narrative that knows only expansion. This is as true of other expressions of human culture as it is true of other-than-human expressions of life. But what about those who live inside modernity’s narrative? Are they not fortunate to have been born into a narrative whose storyline points ever upwards? The fundamental problem with the story is that in order to uphold it, one must also uphold a radical and comprehensive discontinuity. Charlene Spretnak has pointed to this. She argues that modernity’s various foundational movements – the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and Renaissance humanism – each contributed their share to establishing a radical discontinuity between mind and body, soul and flesh, the self and the world, and ultimately, between humans and the more-than-human world. Modernity thus disrupted a perceptual inheritance that had been common to the vast majority of human cultures throughout the history of thought: namely that the world is an organism, vibrant, and alive.[4] Carolyn Merchant, professor of natural resource studies at Berkeley, makes a similar claim. In her book The Death of Nature she writes that up until the concurrent rise of the Enlightenment and rational science, cultures as varied as Eastern civilizations, European land-based societies, and indigenous nations in the Americas had shared the metaphor of the Earth as a living creature. She further argues that with the world no longer considered really alive, with the world thus silenced, and defined categorically by the new overarching metaphysics of the machine, the inhabitants of modernity have been relatively freer from moral restraint. They have also been more easily inclined to exploit economically what they perceived to be not an organism, but a stock of resources. It became relatively easier to sidestep the ethical dilemmas that were provoked by this perceptual leap into deafness. By today the fragmentation reaches far and deep into the fabric of the narrative. The Cartesian vision to “render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature”, with its ontological split into res cogitans (‘thinking stuff’) and res extensa (‘extended stuff’), has led to the paradoxical problem that those masters and possessors have had to conquer parts of themselves in order to succeed. Their own bodies were no longer participants in an embodied mindfulness, but merely served as empty containers for a pure and disembodied rationality. Emotionsintuition, and sensual experience all had to be consciously and vigorously suppressed, for rationality was a jealous inhabitant of the empty body-container and tolerated no fellow occupants. Our embodied mindfulness was further removed from its fluid participation with the land, and the sea, and the air, and the many voices therein, all of whom had once been in an animate exchange with the human animals who walked on two legs amongst the multitude of earthly creatures. In all this, the millennium vision of a good life lived in service of pure rationality became only possible at the cost of large-scale denial, dressed as methodology.

It is no wonder that throughout the ecophilosophical discourse there is a recurring theme: citizens of the narrative that is modernity suffer from a deep sense of alienation. Here is feminist philosopher Susan Griffin: “Separation. The clean from the unclean. The decaying, the putrid, the polluted, the fetid, the eroded, waste, defecation, from the unchanging … The errant from the city. The ghetto. The ghetto of Jews. The ghetto of Moors. The quarter of prostitutes. The ghetto of blacks. The neighborhood of lesbians. The prison. The witch house. The underworld. The underground. The sewer. Space divided. The inch. The foot. The mile. The boundary. The border. The nation. The promised land. The chosen ones. The prophets, the elect, the vanguard, the sanctified, the canonized, and the canonizers.”[5] Here is the author Jesse Wolf Hardin: “The source of all psychological, social, and environmental dis-ease is our illusion of separateness. And the first step in mending that artificial schism – that deep, damn wound – is to try to bring ourselves back to a place of engagement with our authentic beings, in the vital present moment… Much of the natural world, and our own wild spirits, are dying as a direct result of our alienation and abstraction, from what I call our ‘great distancing’. And perhaps most tragically of all, we are dying without having fully lived… Clearly social and environmental activism isn’t enough, unless we can somehow change the way we as a species perceive and relate to the natural world, to land and to place.“[6] Here is eco-psychologist Chellis Glendinning: “[We exist] dislocated from our roots by the psychological, philosophical, and technological constructions of our civilization, and this alienation leads to our suffering… [Individually] we express this suffering in our personal lives, in our relationships with ourselves and each other, by the numbing and abuse of dysfunctional behaviors. Drinking ourselves to oblivion. Shooting up drugs. Raping our babies. Gunning down  strangers. Mental-health professionals tell us that whooping 96% of our families suffer from dysfunction of one sort or another, and that the disorder is imprinted and carried on from generation to generation… [As a society] we express our suffering in our relationship with the Earth by the numbing and abuse we enact through ecological destruction. Mowing down forests. Blanketing valleys and mountains with deadly poisons. Spewing garbage into rivers. Building machines to exterminate life… Because of the built-in displacement of our lives on the Earth, I maintain that a traumatized state is not merely the domain of the Vietnam veteran or the survivor of childhood abuse; it is the underlying condition of the domesticated psyche.”[7] And of course the ecophilosophical writings of Arne Næss are informed by the same observation. Næss writes: “The reduction of alienation and the increase of identification are obviously related to the process of increasing meaningfulness.”[8]

Note how something remarkable is underway. Just like at the time of the Reformation, the collective psyche appears now to be suffering from a deep, damn wound. Just like then, the old story by which we have lived is no longer meaningful. Just like then, the loss of meaning and the intensifying alienation is leading to despair, to suffering, to large-scale destruction, to individual and collective tragedies. And just like then, the search is on for other narratives. We are in the fortunate situation to be participants in that search, co-creators of these emerging stories. We are also in the fortunate position that we can avoid the fatal choices taken by (some of) our elders. Meaning making begins in wounding. As we are now beginning to mend the wounds, new strata of meaning are emerging among us, and through us.

Here is another remarkable constellation that relates directly to this. Just as linear time merely ticks away, so too the linear storyline that is progress takes us further and further away from our origins. This is intentional. It is no coincidence that the dominant narrative of our time is called ‘modernity’. Etymologically speaking, ‘modernity’ means ‘the present moment’ (from Latin modo ‘just now’), and that means we live inside a story that intrinsically devalues all that is of original import.[9] But there is an astonishing catch: The very tool that was supposed to bring about this breakup with origins – science – is now well underway to bending the storyline back into a circle. Science is at the forefront of telling a multi-dimensional, cyclical narrative far more cosmopolitan than the provincial story of modernity. It must be a provocation to the storyline that is progress that all of it has taken place in the pace of a single interglacial heartbeat, a single brief 10,000 year interlude between two ice ages, each ice age a hundred thousand years long, each one a beat in the ongoing pulse with which the wider planetary community struggles to keep itself cool under an ever-brightening sun. We live inside that heartbeat. We participate in a cyclical story far older and far more credible than the account by which ‘humanity’ has risen suddenly, and miraculously, above the planetary community and become its masters and possessors.

I am thinking once more of the photograph of our own planet. I am thinking of the roundness of the Earth. And I make one more observation.

The planet is spherical because its mass exudes a certain gravitational pull. It is gravity, coupled with centrifugal force, that gives roundness. Here again is the dance between departure and return. Gravity bends all of us living creatures back upon this body, whether we inhabit the planet’s river arteries, whether we dive on feathered wings through the depth of the planet’s atmosphere, or whether we walk upright on two legs across the vast plains of its landmasses. As I consider this, I am reminded that Newton’s law of universal gravitation defines gravity as the attraction between two bodies. Another way of saying this is that Newton defines the force that holds the planet in its roundness as an erotic force. And we are within that force. We are within the attraction. It is speaking in terms of Newtonian physics that mere existence on Earth has an erotic aspect, an aspect which seems somehow to relate to that fluid relationship between nearness and distance, between being drawn in and cast away. I am now also reminded of the poet Terry Tempest William’s grappling with the question of the erotic. And as I read her lines, I ponder the relationship between the poet’s language and that of the physicist: “[The erotic] means ‘in relation’… It does not speak well for us as a people that we even have to make the distinction between what is erotic and what is not, because an erotic connection is life-engaged, making love to the world that I think comes very naturally. Eroticism, being in relation, calls the inner life into play. No longer numb, we feel the magnetic pull of our bodies toward something stronger, more vital than simply ourselves. Arousal becomes as dance with longing. We form a secret partnership with possibility.”[10]

Consider the storyline that is linear progress. Visualize it geometrically: any ideal line would touch a spherical body only tangentially, then move away from it infinitely, never to return. Here is a full-blown denial of the attraction that holds the planet together. It is no wonder our very own bodies became objects of contempt in the new story.

It seems that no matter what the cultural narrative, including its ethical imagination, including its epistemological preferences, the narrative must ultimately be answerable to the roundness of the Earth: in what ways does it enable us to dwell within the Earth?

1] Oxford English Dictionary
[3] 1998. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. p. xi.
[4] in: Stephanie Mills. 1997. Turning Away from Technology: A new vision for the 21st century. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. pp. 163ff.
[5] Susan Griffin. 1978. Woman and Nature. New York: Harper Colophon. pp. 95-96.
[6] in: Jensen 2008. How Shall I Live My Life? On Liberating the Earth from Civilization. Oakland: PM Press. p.277f.
[7] Chellis Glendinning. 1994. My Name is Chellis, And I’m in Recovery from Industrial civilization. Gabriola Island, BC: Canada. p. x.
[8] In: Brennan & Witoszek. 1999. Philosophical Dialogues. Arne Næss and the Progress of Ecophilosophy. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p. 191
[9] Hence the hatred against primitive peoples.
[10] In: Derrick Jensen. 2004. Listening to the Land. Conversations about Nature, Culture, and Eros. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing Company. p:310