Transitional Absurdity—How the Ludicrous Can Co-Exist with Hope

For quite a while I questioned an important conclusion suggested by Creative Systems Theory. Even when I recognized its value, I hesitated to write about it out of concern that it would be misinterpreted. That conclusion: A great deal of what we can find most disturbing in today’s world is predicted by how change in cultural systems works. The concept of Transitional Absurdity clarifies this essential recognition.

We encounter Transitional Absurdities when we overshoot the mark in the transition from Modern Age realities into Cultural Maturity’s needed next cultural chapter. Overshooting the mark is pretty much how things work at any major cultural change point (we do so partly as a result of fear and denial, partly because systems are not homogeneous). When we overshoot the mark, dynamics that have served us can become amplified and distorted, producing beliefs and actions that are at the least not helpful—and, frequently, ludicrous and dangerous. Transitional Absurdities reflect the particular version of this overshooting the mark that we would expect to find in our time.

The concept of Transitional Absurdity requires careful reflection to usefully understand, but the perspective it provides is critical. It is hard to ignore that much that goes on in our times seems not at all sane. And we must not ignore it—we pay a high price when we do. But we also pay a price if we misconstrue the implications of what we see. We can become overwhelmed and cynical, hide in denial, or retreat into protective easy-answer thinking. At the least, we can let what we encounter distract us from what our times ultimately ask of us.

By making unpleasant phenomena we encounter more understandable, the concept of Transitional Absurdity helps protect us from reacting in unhelpful ways. But the significance is greater than just this. Perhaps surprisingly, the concept of Transitional Absurdity supports hope. Given that many of these phenomena could be our undoing, the only alternative to the concept of Transitional Absurdity’s interpretation may well be that we are doomed. The fact that such phenomena are consistent with what we would expect to find if the concept of Cultural Maturity is correct supports the possibility of positive outcomes. Understood deeply, the concept not only supports hope, it helps us make sense of the sophistication of thought and action needed if we are to have a healthy and fulfilling future.

Fully grasping the concept of Transitional Absurdity requires more detailed understanding of Creative Systems Theory than I ask of visitors to this site, but the concept is important enough that even a brief introduction has value. Later in the post, I will reflect further on the mechanisms that produce Transitional Absurdities. My primary intent with this post is to highlight some of our time’s more consequential Transitional Absurdities. I will lump them into five broad categories. With each category I’ve included some particularly significant examples.

Blindness to Critical New Capacities. Some Transitional Absurdities simply reflect how holding onto old ways of thinking can keep us from recognizing critical new capacities that current realities are requiring of us (see New Capacities).

Ignoring Limits (and the example of climate change)—Cultural Maturity’s changes give us the ability to more directly acknowledge real limits (see Limits). One of the places in which a lack of this essential new capacity most puts us in danger is in the ignoring of damage done to the environment and the potential for ecological catastrophe. Climate change denial shifts from being a legitimate position to Transitional Absurdity. Today it produces claims that are, in effect, suicidal (see Climate Change).

Failure to Effectively Asses Risk (and the example of terrorism). The ability to better evaluate risk is another critical new capacity that accompanies culturally mature perspective. When we fail to accurately assess risk, we can dangerously misperceive what challenges ask of us. For example, terrorism is as frightening as it is—and thus as successful—in large measure because we exaggerate its risk (see Terrorism). In fact, we are much more likely to be killed by someone driving while talking on a cell phone than by a terrorist. I make this observation not to diminish the significance of terrorism, but simply to put its threat in proportion—and hopefully, by doing so, to make it less effective. I also do it to highlight the media’s failure to provide needed leadership in this regard—at the least its failure to provide needed perspective; at worst, its willingness to exploit our fears (and thus to become, in effect, terrorism’s ally) (see The Evening News).

The Right Hand Prevails—to the Point of Ludicrousness. Creative Systems Theory describes how cultural belief has evolved over the course of history from ways of understanding in which more archetypally feminine (we could say more connectedness-oriented, or simple more “left-hand”) sensibilities prevailed—as with tribal experience—to today, when more archetypally masculine (more difference-oriented or “right-hand”) sensibilities largely hold sway. With Transitional Absurdity, the right-hand dominance is extended to a point that we fail to question quite crazy conclusions.

Materialism Run Amok. Our times are requiring us to rethink our modern concepts of wealth and progress (see Rethinking Progress). If advancement is to continue, we must leave behind making material achievement our bottom line and learn to measure wealth and progress in terms of all the diverse elements that contribute to meaningful lives. The unending triviality of modern mass-consumer culture—in which what we buy, in effect, comes to define meaning—presents a familiar wealth-related Transitional Absurdity. We confront a familiar progress-related Transitional Absurdity in the common assumption that new technologies alone can solve the world’s problems. At the least, this assumption ignores the fact that the ability to invent and the capacity to use invention wisely are not at all the same. Progress-related Transitional Absurdities take their extreme in techno-utopian belief—in which machine-world thinking becomes our ultimate salvation and takes on almost spiritual implications (see Post-Industrial/Information Age Scenarios). Both wealth- and progress-related Transitional Absurdities provide titillating, simplistic-answer escapes from the more demanding challenge of addressing values—and understanding as a whole—in more encompassing and mature ways.

Rationality as Ideology (might we say stupidity?). The Age of Reason made rationality intelligence’s ideal and end point (see Multiple Intelligences). With Cultural Maturity, we better recognize that intelligence has multiple aspects. Indeed, the ability to consciously draw on multiple aspects of intelligence comes close to defining culturally mature perspective (see Cultural Maturity’s Cognitive Changes). When we miss the fact that intelligence is multiple, our rationality ends up limiting our ability to understand deeply—to be rational in the fullest sense. In my book Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future, I write about how this common failing presents a major obstacle for education—both higher education and the education of young people. With higher education, I describe how Age of Reason assumptions that make rationality what it is all about get in the way of academia’s ability to address fundamental issues of our time—and ultimately to provide effective cultural leadership. With education for younger people, we encounter a particularly consequential extension of this kind of blindness with the huge emphasis we see today on standardized testing—an emphasis that is predictably proving a failure (an old saying reminds us that we can’t make a pig fatter just by weighing it every day). The absurdity of placing testing at the center of education comes into particularly high relief with the recognition that tests of the sort we use measure only the most trivial aspects of the new, more culturally mature capacities needed for times ahead. An overemphasis on testing also distracts from the creativity of teaching and depth of student engagement that acquiring those need capacities requires (see Education).

Wholly Disconnected Polarity. Creative Systems Theory describes how, with each major chapter in history, we find increasing distance between the opposites of polarity—between understandings “right” and “left” hands (see Patterning in Time).Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes make it newly possible to understand polarities as complementary aspects of larger systemic processes. When we overshoot the mark, we can end up with nonsensical realities in which opposite poles fail to recognize any mutual value (or sometimes even that the other pole exists).

Partisan Insanity. We tend to think of conflicting political worldviews as rationally arrived-at differences of opinion. More accurately, they reflect opposing polar perspectives within larger systemic realities. Historically, articulating differences and attempting to find compromise worked as a way to make decisions. More and more often today, we find partisan gridlock, with neither side able to appreciate value in opposing viewpoints. One result is that politics comes to have less and less to do with governance (see Partisan Gridlock). It is legitimate to ask whether we are seeing an end to government, at least as we have known it (see Government).

Scientism and Absolutist Religion. Throughout most of modern times, there was no problem with being both a scientist and a religious person (Descartes, for example, was both). Today, we commonly see outright dismissal from both sides. The devoutly religious can reject conclusions from the sciences outright. And scientists can ascribe to a narrow scientism that makes the explicitly material all that has validity. We get nonsensical assertions from both sides, from the dismissal of the archeological record from the religious, to claims from respected evolutionary biologists that not only religious beliefs, but other more left-hand phenomena such as music, have no evolutionary significance—a conclusion that any half-intelligent evolutionary biologist should recognize makes no evolutionary sense (see Postindustrial/Information Age Scenarios). The lunacy from both sides hints at the likelihood that, with time, we will learn to think in terms of a larger, more encompassing picture (see “Science and Religion” in Chapter 7 of my book Quick and Dirty Answers to the Biggest of Questions).

Postmodern Absurdities. Postmodern perspective takes steps toward Cultural Maturity by challenging past cultural absolutes. But if we hold onto postmodern belief beyond its timeliness, we get, at best, anything-goes beliefs in which randomness and ironic cleverness masquerade as truth. At worst, we end up confusing empty stimulation with meaning (see Postmodern/Constructivist Scenarios).

Anything-Goes Morality. The postmodern recognition that different people legitimately view the world in different ways is critically important. But when we overshoot the mark, we get different-strokes-for-different-folks beliefs in which one choice is as good as any other. Truth becomes arbitrary, a function of little more than whim. At a personal level, this ultimately crazy result leads to an increasingly prevalent and dangerous moral aimlessness. At a cultural level, it undermines attempts to articulate a new cultural story, to establish principles that can effectively guide us in a postmodern world (see Humanity’s Crisis of Purpose). (In the end, anything-goes thinking extends well beyond the moral. I will be fascinated, for example, to see the eventual fate of the contemporary notion in physics that there exist an infinite number of universes that express all possible options. It is a legitimate hypothesis, but it smells rather like the endlessly valid possibilities of postmodern arbitrariness.)

Artificial Stimulation as Meaning. It has always been the case that we can confuse simple excitation with significance—witness if-it-bleeds-it-leads journalism and pornography. But in an anything-goes world, this dynamic can be amplified dramatically. For example, movies today can be about little more than shootings, car crashes, and explosions. With video games, we commonly find repeated jolts of excitation functioning in ways that directly mimic the mechanisms of addictive drugs (see Artificial Stimulation as Meaning). This dynamic presents one of the future’s greatest dangers—as artificial intelligence, big data, and related advances give us the potential to produce ever more powerful and highly targeted digital “designer drugs.” The fact that we are not more actively in conversation about this danger is crazy—and a further reflection of Transitional Absurdity.

Exploitation of Forgotten Sensibilities. We also find absurdities—and dangers—that come from the exploitation of sensibilities and values that have come to have diminishing influence with Modern Age realities—for example, the artistic, the world of children, community, the life of the body, and the spiritual. These examples may not be as obvious as others I’ve listed, but they are just as important. Because, with transitional dynamics, we lack solid connection to these essential aspects of who we are, their power becomes readily co-opted.

Art and the Seductive Power of Advertising. Today’s most prominent and influential art form is advertising, a fact that turns art’s ultimate purpose on its head. Throughout history, art has served to give expression to newly emerging themes in the human story (think of the Renaissance presaging Modern Age understanding). In this way, it has been the voice for a particularly essential kind of truth. While advertising played a positive role in the rise of modern economic forms, today it has become little more than a form of highly sophisticated lying—using the language of art to manipulate (see Advertising and Art). Modern advertising’s consequences are particularly damaging when that power is directed at children—who are vulnerable not just because they are innocent, but because the language of advertising draws specifically on the imagination-based aspects of intelligence through which children most find meaning. I consider advertising directed at the young intended only to generate profit as a particularly egregious form of child abuse. (We encounter a related exploitation of imaginal intelligence in popular media directed at children. What the Disney company hails as “imagineering”—and that most people buy into as a great gift to children—commonly has less to do with enhancing imagination than with the production of highly profitable, consumable substitutes for imagination.)

Exploiting Our Hunger for Human Connectedness. Connectedness was paramount in our tribal beginnings—to be excluded from the tribe would be tantamount to nonexistence. Over the course of history, close bonds in community have gradually given way to a reality in which individuality becomes what most defines us. Today, we can find ourselves at once hungry for community and distanced from parts of ourselves needed for deep connection. One result is that we become vulnerable to confusing the most trivial kinds of “connectedness” with human relationship—a fact exploited by advertising and popular media (for many people, advertising and popular media provide the most reliable images of emotional closeness) and increasingly by social media. While much in social media meets real needs, as much or more is ludicrous and a distraction from the essential culturally mature task of learning to engage both ourselves and others with new depth.

Confusion about the Body. In our cultural beginnings, body intelligence was central—everyone knew the tribal songs and dances. Over time we have becomes increasingly distanced from body sensibility. This leaves us both confused about our bodies and vulnerable to having whatever body connectedness remains exploited for economic gain. Today we see obsession with the most surface aspects of physical appearance (witness our current infatuation with plastic surgery), rampant obesity and drug abuse, and use of sex to sell almost every kind of product. We have become so used to the trivialization and exploitation of the body that we fail to recognize that we are violating much in ourselves that is most precious.

Co-opting the Spiritual. Given that the spiritual represents the ultimate expression of the more left-hand, receptive, archetypally feminine part of our natures (see Religion), we should expect it to suffer some particularly striking Transitional Absurdities. The time of year in which I write this post prompts me to mention an example that is so familiar in our experience that we might miss it altogether: A major portion of what we do during the Christmas holidays is correctly thought of as Transitional Absurdity. Christmas today has little connection with the holiday’s mystical roots and if we are honest, very little to do with anything religious at all. It has become primarily a celebration of buying things—of materiality—in essence a celebration of spirituality’s opposite. We don’t like to acknowledge this fact because what remains represents a last vestige of something that has been deep and precious. But it is hard to deny. (The remarkably simpleminded conclusions we can see today with both fundamentalist and New Age spiritual belief in a different way reflects this same kind of distancing.)

Beyond such specific Transitional Absurdities, there is a more encompassing way in which Transitional Absurdity manifests. In reflecting on postmodern dynamics, I hinted at how the concept ties directly to today’s broader crisis of purpose (see Today’s Crisis of Purpose). In part, the fact that we would experience such a crisis is a function simply of the loss of familiar truths. But if the concept of Cultural Maturity is accurate, it is just as much a function of the kind of disconnectedness that produces more specific Transitional Absurdities. Actions have no meaning estranged from their relational contexts. And freedom severed from the flesh from which our unique human capacities arise stops being freedom at all. Such recognition is not pleasant. But all of this is very real. And these realities are not just absurd; if we extend them any great distance into the future, they become insanity.

I promised to return for a more detailed theoretical look at the concept of Transitional Absurdity. Two lenses provide particular insight: polarity’s role in creative change, and the evolution of narrative.

A Creative Systems Theory concept called the Dilemma of Trajectory brings needed detail to the role of polarity (see the Dilemma of Trajectory). I’ve described how we see a gradual progression over the course of history from realities in which more “left-hand” sensibilities prevailed to today, when more “right-hand” sensibilities predominate. Cultural Maturity’s threshold presents a strange circumstance. The archetypally masculine has almost wholly eclipsed the archetypally feminine. We stand in a world of all content and no context, of all right hand and no left, of life as ultimate abstraction stretched ever more distant from the foundations of experience. This circumstance is strange enough in itself. But extended beyond its timeliness, it becomes not just strange, but ludicrous and decidedly dangerous.

The language of cultural narrative comes at the same result from a different angle. At Cultural Maturity’s threshold, the juxtaposed heroic and romantic narratives of Modern Age belief give way to the more multifaceted beliefs of postmodern narrative (see The Evolution of Narrative). The various forms of Transitional Absurdity I have noted reflect attempts to carry old narratives into new realities where they have no place. They represent either absurdly exaggerated heroic conclusions, postmodern belief that now only gets in the way of going forward, or the exploitation of the faint remnants of romantic sensibility that remain. The result is claims and actions that are at best silly, at worst dangerous distractions from the tasks at hand. Today’s crisis of purpose is ultimately a crisis of narrative. We lack shared stories sufficiently compelling to guide us forward. Transitional Absurdities leave us distanced from the ability to recognize the essential need for a new story, and further still from the ability to address it.

The concept of Transitional Absurdity helps us deal with these dangerous circumstances. It does this in three important ways. First it helps us make sense of why, in our time, we should see the kind of disturbing results that I have described. The fact that these results are predicted at the least makes them more understandable.

Second, the concept of Transitional Absurdity helps us recognize how what we see may have more positive implications than we might assume. I’ve introduced the notion that the reason these disturbing circumstances are predictable is that they reflect stage-specific dynamics within larger, ultimately creative mechanisms. In the end, they are wholly consistent with Cultural Maturity’s realization—and thus with hope. Arguably, the only alternative interpretation if the concept of Transitional Absurdity is not correct may be that we are reaching the end of humanity’s grand experiment.

Third, the concept of Transitional Absurdity alerts us to the kinds of actions that can provide real benefit. This third benefit has both specific and big-picture aspects. The more specific aspect relates to how Cultural Maturity’s changes bring the new capacities that are needed if we are to address the critical challenge before us. Transitional Absurdities highlight the need for these new capacities and some of what they might make possible. As examples, here I’ve pointed toward how a new maturity in our relationship to limits will be needed to address climate change, and also how the absurdity that we see today in the halls of government may suggest the necessity of a new chapter in how we think about governance. The more big-picture aspect relates to the recognition that the antidote to each of the kinds of unpleasantness that I have described is, in the end, the same: Cultural Maturity and the more sophisticated ways of thinking and acting that it makes possible.

These three kinds of benefit come together in an additional, more everyday way in which recognizing the fact of Transitional Absurdity can assist us. The concept can help us avoid responding to circumstances in less-than-useful ways. Without the needed perspective, any of the specific examples I’ve described can distract us, leaving us vulnerable to having our precious creative energy sidetracked. We can get caught up in the lunacy of political soap opera. Or we can become irate that critical issues like climate change are met with denial. Such reactions are understandable, and it can be important to speak out when we encounter absurdity. But responding reactively to how others might hide from the obvious is seldom, in the end, a good use of attention and resources. It rarely does any good. And responding reactively ignores an essential recognition that follows if the concept of Cultural Maturity is accurate: Most of the idiocy we see today will, with time, do itself in. If we miss this recognition, our reactions end up feeding into—and prolonging—the absurdity. If an issue really matters, the task is to best make sense of what is going on, and to identify and support solutions. This maturity of response asks more of a person. But in the end it is what produces actions that make a difference.

The recognition that Transitional Absurdities carried very far into the future become not just absurd, but insane raises some obvious questions about what we should anticipate in the decades immediately ahead. Note that we see, simultaneously, two trajectories with markedly different implications. While Cultural Maturity suggests important new possibility, the fact of Transitional Absurdities suggests something quite different if such blindnesses continue on to any great degree—and it is likely that many of them will. We may well need to confront much that is quite crazy in times ahead. As we face this unsettling degree of uncertainty, it is important to appreciate how a simple recognition that follows from reflections in this post makes these circumstances of less consequence than we might assume. We can’t know exactly what the future will bring, but whatever transpires the task remains the same—and ultimately straightforward. We need to engage what we find with the perspective—indeed the wisdom—that Cultural Maturity’s more encompassing vantage provides.

The recognition of Transitional Absurdities can serve as an important kind of teacher. But, as I’ve suggested, for such recognition to help us in this way, we must apply the concept with care. As we find with other tools of critique, the concept of Transitional Absurdity can easily become a repository for any phenomenon that our particular worldview might find aversive. For the concept to help us, we have to appreciate that Transitional Absurdity represents a very specific notion that requires nuanced discernment. But with such careful discernment, the concept provides essential insight for going forward.