Thanks for this clear and insightful response, TJ. I’m glad you posted it, because I didn’t want to be the first to break the post-café ice, being the odd-man-out (again), though if you hadn’t, I would have posted something today anyway. Just because I don’t grok something the first time I encounter it (which is true of most things I encounter, it would seem) doesn’t mean I’m not interested.
Though I’m generally disinclined toward instrumentalist/utilitarian approaches, I’m honest enough to admit when I’m employing them myself. For me the question is not whether Herr Löffler has something useful to say – I am sure he does – rather, the question I have to ask myself (also given where I am along Life’s Path) is whether the investment (in time primarily) is worth the reward (life-relevant knowledge). Or, more flippantly, is the gain going to be worth the pain? That’s, of course, my own, personal utilitarian equation, no more.
And I can see and appreciate that, for it speaks to my Sagittarian nature, but my approach to life is quite Virgoan, so my attention gets naturally drawn to the gaps. I’m not saying they’re more or less important than anything else, but it was the gaps (or what I perceive of gaps) that I would have brought up in my posting today anyway, so let me weave them in at this point in your response. There are three: his idea of “notional cultural capacity”, his selection of relevant technologies, and his choice of caesurae. These are the places where I stumbled (and whatever I have to say in what follows should be seen in precisely that light).
First, he contrasts the notion of “notional” cultural capacity (<70ka) with two other forms, the “composite” (<500ka) and the “complementary” (<100ka). In what he says later, I can see how he is addressing the evolution of humans from the hominoids. When did humans become human, if you will. It is a fascinating question and there are several theories on how that came about and why. Tool-making (not mere tool-using) is taken by most as a significant marker. And, at these points in time the matter of survival (getting enough to eat, defense against threats, etc.) are reasonable reductions, so an exclusive focus on types of tools and weapons is understandable, but is reductionist nevertheless. There is a whole lot more going on – socially (and since he is writing a sociology dissertation, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to question why social components are being left out) and even culturally.
For example, he mentions “ornamental devices” in regard to ch complementary cultural capacity, and in the interview he placed some value on the rise of “art” (which we can understand at the moment in its broadest sense), and implied it was a driver of cultural development. The general understanding is, I believe, that art has no survival value (a point on which I personally disagree with the general understanding). But it must play some kind of significant role because it is such a significant part of our cultural history. It’s not just technology that is driving us. For the Greeks – and who are of central importance for his approach – techne did not have the distinctive art-over-there-technology-over-here that is has for us today, though it may be where the seed this separation (rise of the mental, per Gebser, latency of the rational, etc.) was planted. I don’t know, I’m just wondering. What is more, the earliest evidence of human burial (in Spain) – and granted it’s still controversial – is dated at 350 ka (this is homo heidelbergensis, BTW). This is a highly significant marker for cultural development. Someone (or, most likely several) dug a grave and placed the remains of 27 of their kind there along with a single pick-colored stone axe. The earliest undisputed burial site was found in Israel, dated at 100 ka, so it would seem by this time there was a “culture” beyond mere survival; that is, something was going on in those growing brains that was not only survival-centered. It is not that I think he needed to mention any of this specifically, but it is not clear from what he did write why technology is his focus to what appears to be the exclusion of other significant and relevant factors. In other words, a few words about why the focus might have been helpful.
This stumble of mine was then reinforced with he says that at ca. <70 ka “the human organism ideal-typically has reached ‘behavioral modernity’”. That was a flag for me. I agree with his implication that the rise of homo sapiens is earlier than the ca. 40 ka generally maintained, and I agree with him that very important and significant ‘human universals’, as he phrases it, are in evidence at this time. But these and their significance – perhaps even for the development of technology is not explored any further. He seems to be saying that all the released creative energy was channeled into technology, and technology that is solely the resolution of survival-related “problems”.
Second, the technologies he selects (even if they are only examples) are rather one-sided; that is they are survival-related. There were other technologies (other than weapons, for example) that have had, in my mind, much greater impacts on humanity and culture than these. Everybody likes to focus on weapons, I know, but what about the Agricultual Revolution? At some point humans stopped (not completely, of course, but generally) hunting-and-gatherinf and became sedentary, cf. Catalhölyuk in current-day Anatolia: a city of perhaps 7,000-9,000 inhabitants, a unique commuity-serving architecture, and domesticated animals. Somewhere along the line we developed the technologies of domestication, of both plants (grains primarily) and animals (sheep, cattle, and even pets, etc.). Isn’t it the consequences of these technologies that the very first great civilizations even arose?
It was in these first civilizations that other, let us say, head-based technologies arose (mathematics (the Sumerians calculated compound interest, which Einstein once quipped was the most powerful force in the universe), geometry, astrology/astronomy (as time-measurement). What is more we have the whole realm of ore extraction and smelting – yes I missed a mention of Tubalcain here. Prior to the first significant caesura. we the Stone Age had been left behind for the Bronze and the Bronze for the Iron. These seem, to me at least, to be of relevance to his thesis.
And, having mentioned “death” and its (at least potential) cultural significance, I find it at leasst odd — it was a place of stumbling for me – that one of the longest-lived cultures/civilizations the world has ever seen, the Ancient Egyptians, is not mentioned at all. There whole cultural/civilization focus was on death. The technology of embalming they developed doesn’t quite fit into the same schema as yam-growing, I suppose, because it wasn’t a survival-based technological operational chain that became institutionalized and counterproductive.
Third, his first recognized caesura was the Axial Age. A fascinating and to-this-day still hotly debated topic. It is his contention that at the this time the first real shifts in consciousness occur. Well, obviously as a student of Gebser, I ask myself about everything that happened prior to that, what Gebser calls the Archaic (which could be with a bit of effort mapped into his composite cultural capacity. But what Gebser describes as Magical and Mythical have no real relevance for his thesis. Of course, Gebser traced the emergence of this structures of consciousness through art more than technology, did he not? The question for me, though, was why did this event – the development of art – mean so much for Löffler in identifying the notional cultural capacity, but have so little relevance for what came after?
The Axial Age corresponds roughly to what Gebser identifies as the mutation to the Mental structure of consciousness. His second caesura “Modernity” corresponds roughly to the shift from the efficient Mental to the deficient Rational structure of consciousness. And, his final caesura, the one going on right now corresponds roughly to Gebser’s mutation to the Integral structure. Each of these is problematic and so I stumbled here. Aside from what I just mentioned, Löffler maintains that it was in the Axial Age is characterized by the transition from “community to society”. I would have thought that a statement such as that would need just a tad bit more clarification. Nowhere has he made clear what the difference between the two are, and I – the layman – would consider the Sumerian (or Ancient Akkadian or Egyptian) civilization to be manifestations of societies, with highly developed (and I’ll use his terms) “operational chains” that were doing much more than merely ensuring physical survival.
Then, I really stumbled over the Modernity caesura, which he says includes “the formation of the inner market, the commodification of the work force, and the conversion of the economy towards surplus production” (my emphasis). The reason the Agricultural Revolution, for example, was so significant is that it generated surpluses. The notion of surplus is an essential civilizational, cultural, and economic factor long before Modernity. Any history of capital (especially those which highlight the “inevitability” of this economic form) starts here. I haven’t read Kocka’s Geschichte des Kapitalismus [Engl. History of Capitalism], but I would be more than surprised if he didn’t start here as well. Varoufakis certainly does, and Graeber (whom he quotes) emphasized the role of surplus continually throughout his discussion of debt). This was a disconnect for me that made me ask why the reduction (actually the German word Verkürzung [shortening, making less long] popped into my head first … maybe “compression” would be a better word) here. But, that notion of surplus was a big part of that huge chunk of civilizational history that he skipped over. I wondered why he thought it wasn’t relevant.
So, those were my primary stumbles. I don’t expect anyone reading this to resolve them all for me, though any light shed would be greatly appreciated. As @Mark_Jabbour noted specifically in the Café, and as I have repeatedly tried to emphasize myself, we read (and hear) everything first in terms of who we think we are and where we think we are in life. There were a few points in the material where I stumbled greatly and I have attempted here to make it clear where they were and why they were perhaps more significant for me than the others. The feeling I got was that the gaps were to large (for me) to gloss over, and that the number (and size) of questions coming in was larger than the questions that were being answered. Tough I’m somewhat familiar with the process and concepts of biological evolution, I’m not all that familiar with cultural evolution, though the notion has been bantered about in these Cafés from time to time. What’s the difference between “evolution” and “development”, for example? Operational chains as a way of dealing with technology development (evolution?) could be something, but I wasn’t able to grasp whether these were being considered as evolutionary or developmental things. And, just to repeat what I’ve said and intimated before in other places, such as the TAANSTAFL Café, I think economics as a mode of thinking is highly overrated, even if we can look at it as if it had an independent existence, which is how we today have come to see it for the most part. And so, I was left with the feeling that in order to resolve these points would involve more time and effort than I can afford (or perhaps am willing) to invest.
This is in no way a criticism of anyone, nor a critique of Herr Löffler. It is simply my attempt to make clear why I’m not as enthused as everyone else. But, as TJ also noted:
As did I, but the questions that arose were, “How objective can those scenarios be?” (We were living in an age in which it was generally understood that many facts are socially constructed (e.g., The USA is a liberal democracy. It is debatable, but we all kind of know what we’re all talking about when we discuss it.) though there were others that were not (e.g., the number of people who show up for, say, an inauguration of an elected official). But we now live in a world in which “alternative facts” are deemed worthy of consideration, but which, as I see it, undermine the discussion process from the outset. So what does Löffler mean by “objective” and “objectivity”? And really key for me is the second part of the statement, the part regarding the “value” we are willing to assign. What does he mean by “value”? If economics is as significant as I think he thinks it is, then we are talking primarily economic value and that undermines the kind of value I’m thinking of (which is the one Oscar Wilde described in his quip: “We live in an age in which we know the price of everything but the value of nothing.”). I am hesitant, however, to think that the is only “value” he’s talking about, but it didn’t become clear for me in my reading what that notion of value might be. So, once again: how much do I want to know, or do I just wait until one of you others helps along the way.
And so it goes.