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The Tao of Now

THE RESURGENCE OF THE REAL: Body, Nature and Place in a Hypermodern World. By Charlene Spretnak . Addison Wesley Longman: 278 pp., $22

September 21, 1997|FRITJOF CAPRA | Fritjof Capra, physicist and systems theorist, is the author of several books, including, most recently, "The Web of Life."

As our century draws to a close, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are going through a fundamental change of world view and values, a change of paradigms as radical as the Copernican Revolution. Instead of seeing the universe as a machine composed of elementary building blocks, scientists have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships and that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain but also the immune system, the bodily tissues and even each cell as living cognitive systems. Evolution is no longer seen as merely a competitive struggle for existence but rather as a cooperative dance in which creativity and the constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces.

Because a community's paradigm, according to Thomas Kuhn, is always embodied in its practices and institutions, the current sense of profound change is not confined to science and philosophy but is felt throughout society as a breakdown of social and political institutions, values and conceptual structures. Over the last 30 years, the multiple facets of this cultural transformation have been explored and analyzed in numerous books, including Theodore Roszak's "The Making of a Counterculture" (1969) and "Where the Wasteland Ends" (1972); my own "The Tao of Physics" (1975) and "Turning Point" (1982); Hazel Henderson's "Creating Alternative Futures" (1978) and "Paradigms in Progress" (1991); Marilyn Ferguson's "The Aquarian Conspiracy" (1980); Morris Berman's "The Reenchantment of the World" (1981); and Riane Eisler's "The Chalice and the Blade" (1987).

"The Resurgence of the Real" by eco-feminist Charlene Spretnak continues this analysis of our cultural transformation. Spretnak is no stranger to cultural critique; her previous works include an anthology, "The Politics of Women's Spirituality," and an eco-feminist critique of deconstructionist philosophy, "States of Grace." In her new book, Spretnak addresses a sweeping question: Is there a general pattern behind the breakdown of old thought forms and institutions? Her answer is a resounding yes. What other authors have called a "crisis of perception" and a "paradigm shift" is nothing less, in her view, than the breakdown of modernity: "Modernity produced painful 'contradictions' that were wrestled with throughout the 19th century, but our own century has witnessed the outright failure of many of the assumptions of the modern worldview."

With clarity and passion, Spretnak offers an insightful and persuasive critique of what went wrong with the modern project. Modernity comprises four distinct characteristics:

* Linear thinking, expressed in the belief in unlimited material progress through economic and technological growth and in the belief that the efficiency of current economic practices is more valuable than human well-being and ecological sustainability;

* The mechanistic view of the physical world as a mechanical system composed of elementary building blocks, which entails the positions of objectivism and rationalism as well as the prejudice of scientism;

* The social Darwinist view of life in society as a competitive struggle for existence, reinforced by a much older patriarchal socialization;

* The anthropocentric view of human culture as being in opposition to nature, which is thought to have merely instrumental value, i.e. to be of value only to the extent that it is useful to humans.

Spretnak's two-page synopsis of these characteristics does not add new elements to previous descriptions of the "old paradigm." However, it is admirably concise and thorough--the most comprehensive summary I have read. Spretnak also lists several important consequences of the basic ideas of the modern worldview. She points out that the fixation on economic growth has led to the view of humans as essentially economic beings and to a strong emphasis on industrialization and material consumption. The application of the mechanistic model to the design and organization of work and the overriding emphasis on efficiency have led to standardization, centralization and bureaucratic hierarchies as further characteristics of modern societies. The application of reductionist thinking to social organization has resulted in the fragmentation of society into separate religious, ethnic, professional and "special interest" groups that is so typical of the modern era; the anthropocentric stance of modern culture has brought with it a widespread contempt for indigenous peoples and their tribal, earth-centered ways of life.

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