In 2008 people everywhere were saying, “He’s the one”—but they weren’t talking about the messiah of a triumphant second coming or about Neo, the reluctant millennial hero of The Matrix. This wasn’t religion or science fiction—it was politics, and “the one” was a man who would become the forty-fourth president of the United States, Barack Obama. “Obama mania” was spreading through the world, bringing with it both a fresh and an age-old dream of hope and redemption. The old king had died—in the form of former president George W. Bush—and the new king appeared poised to preside over a twenty-first-century Camelot, the global cyber village.
Our imagination works hard to fashion images and stories like this – to create fantasies and dreams of totality in the form of narratives, metaphors, and images of wholeness that serve to give a center and meaning to individual and collective life. We do so especially during times of uncertainty and distress, and the dreams of totality we fashion materialize in the right spot at the right moment— penetrating into the heart of what matters to us most. For as mythology and history have shown, there is a consistent and enduring call and response dynamic in the human imagination, a pattern of lost and found: the disappearance of a dream of totality is always followed either by a search for what will restore unity or the creation of an enlarged vision of what constitutes wholeness – the return of Persephone and spring after the darkness of grief and winter, the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama, the risen and transfigured Christ, societal models and ‘isms’ like capitalism and communism, or fantasies of wholeness like globalization.
The dreams of totality that emerge from within us do so either with a sense of unshakeable even messianic conviction, feeling completely and self-evidently right, or sometimes with a quieter grace. The uncertainty and fragmented quality of contemporary life, for example, calls out in the imagination for some kind of reconstitution – that is the dynamic of dreaming of totality. In answer to that call, there is a strong pull to default to the seeming correctives of a mighty apocalypse, or a new grail of global consciousness with its implicit promise of a global cyber village. We cling for dear life to our laptops and Smartphones, which have attained the status of charged fetishes and umbilical cords – prayer beads and connections to the dream of totality this is the World Wide Web.
Imagination really is more important than knowledge. It’s the game we play and the ground we play it in. We are primed to integrate our experience and reactions into wholes, particularly in response to stress or fragmentation, and the images and paradigms of totality we create are capable of moving feelings and emotions in a way that rational thought is not. These symbolic creations are not irrational but simply nonrational—an aspect of the mythopoetic mind, tied to the body and to our emotions. This tie to our bodies and emotions accounts for the deeply adaptive function of our dreams of totality, as well as for their propensity for fixation and compulsive behavior. Dreaming of totality reinforces a movement toward radical democracy in the psyche and society when it promotes inclusion and creative transgression, but dreams of totality can also harden into reactionary totalitarianism or an apocalyptic mysticism. Right now in America, for example, a distinctive characteristic of democracy’s dream, ‘e pluribus unum’ (out of many, one) is straining at the seams, threatening to break apart into dysfunctional pieces, to close down under the umbrella of homeland security, and to replace the ‘many’ with ‘money.’ In keeping with the dual nature of its ubiquitous symbol, the circle or sphere, our dreams of totality can be inclusive but also exclusionary. They are both womb and tomb, a subversive kiss or a locked down embrace, visions of possibility or the elaborate coffins for the soul and society that prohibit the imagining of new worlds.
Our imagination’s dreams of totality are a great psychological remedy that’s both panacea and poison, a capacity of mind and heart we all share that is intimately responsive to the needs and the ecosystems of time and place. And so, with the stirrings of our contemporary postmodern sensibility and the explosion of communications technology, the previously unthinkable possibility that there might be nothing at the center of either individual or collective life is upon us—and there is no going back. There is no possibility of returning to the stability of “traditional values,” to societies embedded in nature, to theocracies, or to totalitarian systems; soon even unbridled free markets will no longer be an option. Once upon a time those fantasies of wholeness and containment were up to date and expressed the spirit of their times, which is why they can’t be re-created from whole cloth—their time has passed and they lack the objectivity of living experience. Many of them have little to contribute to the pressing questions of our time.
For one thing, our contemporary fantasies of wholeness—the ones through which we live and breathe like globalization and cyberspace—are no longer reliably organized or located anywhere, and they lack centers of emotional gravity. Instead, they seem to shift and change shape, are deferred and referred, appearing and disappearing in ways that feel fragmented and chaotic. As what contained us before no longer does, several things seem to be happening at once. Fanaticism and fundamentalisms of all sorts—religious, political, social—arise in compensation, struggling vigorously to restore order, especially as new dreams like globalization and the virtual world of the Web are pressing forward and taking over our collective imagination. Many people revel in the destruction of old forms in a kind of gleeful or righteous apocalyptic nihilism. Many adopt a casual “whatever” relationship to truth, or are lulled into passivity by the spectacles of disaster celebrated by the media industry, perhaps our contemporary form of the bread and circuses that characterized the Roman Empire before its fall. Luckily, the regressive nature of these nostalgic projects is eventually exposed by their cognitive and emotional primitivity. Or so we hope.
While we still imagine totality in images and events like globalization and the virtual world, we are also aware that our projections of wholeness and the centering function of social systems and self don’t hold together very well anymore. We no longer integrate conflicting tendencies in contemporary life so much as we live them out. It’s a double crunch, for we are now in trouble as things don’t hold together, but also if they do. There’s the satisfying reverberation of reality in this, and the opportunity for something new that a relationship with the freshness of reality always offers. And we also experience frightening feelings of anxiety, arbitrariness, and fantasies of disintegration – as the all-seeing eye of imagination no longer beholds monomythic totalities, but rather, blinking and updating, it skims lightly over the surface of everything, like the virtual map of Google Earth.
Excerpted from Introduction and Chapter 1