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William Irwin Thompson

on some level see an even deeper link between sex and death; something in the universe’s history prior to that which connects them.

Bill: Sex and death is basic to the structure of myth, long before Freud. Death is really a definition of individuation. If you don’t have a discrete cell with a nucleus that dies, if you just repeat cell division ad infinitum, then the process is plasmic and universal and extended, but like bacteria that don’t have a nucleus it’s not highly individuated. It’s so collective that it’s not a discretely located genetically-defined individual.

One of the things that I’m fascinated with in myth is how every structural transition within cultural transformation is characterized by loss and a dark age. Then after that there is an opening to the unimaginable. Something else happens like Crestacean extinction and the occurrence of mammals after the dinosaurs. This is one reason why I don’t buy into cryogenics and the ego’s cry of, I don’t want to die! Death is part of what enables individuation to be possible.

In a Greek tragedy it gives it poignancy. What is opera about? The guy is about to die and the woman sings an aria, “Addio vita!” Goodbye life! So the whole nature of romantic art, poetry, opera, Greek tragedy, is all about the intensity of death and its linked opposite of sex and orgasmic ecstasy.

I think that on some level this is an evolutionary commitment to energizing the universal by energizing the unique. It’s a kind of Mobius strip where the unique and the universal cross in more interesting ways than with bacteria where it’s the unit and the uniform. So fascist states that try to compress with a single center like the old Soviet Union, tend not to carry much evolutionary energy.

The reason that America was able to win the race was that we somehow tripped into this experiment – maybe partly inspired by jazz and art – of self-organization from noise. Notice that we have a high tolerance for crime. I can tell you from living in Canada and Switzerland that Americans will put up with more crime, more noise and more disorder than these more stable nations.

Nobody else can understand it. The Chinese can’t figure out what the hell we’re doing; the Russians, who are imitating us now and are having their own Chicago in the `30’s in Moscow, are flirting with us, but I think they’re going to say, we can’t take it let’s go back to Stalin.

David: Do you think that’s related to the extraordinary cultural diversity in America?

Bill: Yeah, I do. I think it has a lot to do with black jazz, with Jewish intellectuality, Irish poetry, this whole gene pool of ecological diversity. The greatness of America is that there’s no center that carries the whole thing. You have Paris in France and Moscow in Russia, but New York doesn’t call the shots for the whole of America. You’ve got all these different places with different styles and bioregional cultures which really add something to the mix.

So I think that there’s a universal quality that’s energizing the unique. How far can it go before the collective breaks down? We’re right at this edge, and I really don’t know how America is going to handle the next step.

Rebecca: In avoiding institutionalized thought, tribes and subcultures are popping up all over the place. Sometimes they seem even more dogmatic than the institutions they are supposedly freeing themselves from and other times they are free-form experiments in community. Do you think that the increase in tribalism, especially in a country like America, where public unity hides such underlying diversity, is an evolutionary advance or a regression in your view?

Bill: I don’t think it’s either one – I think it’s experimentation. I don’t think that evolution is so planned and managed. It deals with mistakes and mutations and accidents and things get infolded in sloppy ways. So it isn’t the linear program of Chardin or Darwin of moving from chaos to the Omega Point, it’s something more complicated. Definitely suprise and chatoic processes are all part of it.

Rebecca: Do you see the increase in tribalism as a positive development?

Bill: Well, we might blow it and it might just move into a catastrophe, but even catastrophes tend to be, over the long haul, spurs to evolution. We might even end it for human beings and not be able to keep this experiment going, but the biosphere will not cease to evolve. If you’re mystical, you don’t necessarily identify just with a momentary piece of meat call hominoids.

Rebecca: There’s been much debate about the robustness of complex ecological systems such as the rainforest. Is greater evolutionary momentum, driven by diversity, always going to create instability in the long run in your view?

Bill: It’s equal and opposite energies going on at the same time. At the one level you get homogenization of the suburban culture, so other people start marking themselves out and retribalize, they start tattooing themselves and diversifying their sexuality. That reaches a point where it energizes the fundamentalists to say, “now we’ve got to go back to family values and kill them all.”

So it’s a question of how those two extremes are going to balance out. America is arming to the teeth because they basically distrust government and are preparing some different scenarios of Armageddon. There are all kinds of scenarios out there that could be pretty frightening where America could just lose it and implode.

China probably believes that that’s what’s going to happen. One of the reasons they keep selling us these cheap AK47’s is that they think, “why should we bother to invade and have a war to see who is going to be the master of the Pacific Rim in the twentieth century? Why don’t we just sell them the guns, make the money and let them kill themselves?”(laughter all round) I don’t think I’m being paranoid – it just might work!

When humanity reaches this evolutionary catastrophe bifurcation or cusp, some people can’t handle the recycling of the noise into new information and just check out. It’s like when industrial cultures hit third world or tribal cultures their suicide rates go up and their fertility rates go way down and they pull the plug on themselves.

I think in places like Los Angeles, you’re really getting a kind of end of the world psychosis. You’re getting drive-by shootings on the freeway and people are worrying about whether the San Andreas fault is going to crack or whether the air will become too polluted – it’s just end time.

Rebecca: But at the same time as the cry of the individual seems to be getting louder and louder, there’s this New Age take that we’re all merging into one. Which do you think is the most powerful force operating on the planet at this time, unity or diversity?

Bill: Marshall MacLuhan had this whole Dantesque vision of the future as the fragments of humanity gathered together in a kind of evolutionary Mystical Body of Christ, but that’s a holographic universe where the unique and universal energize one another – it’s not compression into sameness.

Rebecca: I’ve been hearing a lot about the new planetary culture which is a term being thrown around quite loosely these days. But isn’t the diversity of lifestyles and language and mythos part of the artistry of what humanity is and what keeps it interesting and surprising?

Bill: Well, the term `planetary culture’ is a phrase of mine from almost thirty years ago and was meant to contrast the internationalism of the M.I.T multi-corporate elite that I was trying to counter. I was saying that there’s this new form of globalization with a crossing of Indian yoga and science and electronics that is creating a new planetary culture. But it didn’t work because the planetization seems to just be apologetics for the American empire in a new form.

Rebecca: Could it be that instead of leading to more and more cultural homogenization, planetary culture could be achieved by individuals within each culture beginning to gain a planetary perspective which would then lead to environmental sensitivity and a decrease in violence?

Bill: Planetary culture isn’t a mono-culture. Planetary culture is basically saying that in internationalism, the governing science is economics. A planetary culture suggests a shift to ecology as the governing science. It energizes diversity, it requires a larger gene pool and it deals with the new sciences of complexity rather than linear reductionism. We’re not all becoming one. We might be going in hyperspace to a level of integration in which we all participate in this multi-dimensionality, but it’s high in individuation.

Going back to your question about sexuality, sexuality for somebody who isn’t mystical is the most intense way of experiencing the vividness of your own body and your own ecstatic existence. It’s about being both intensely alive and yet webbed to another and participating with the encounter in a romantic dynamic. It’s a Zen koan in the sense that it’s in you and not in you.

In terms of parenting, there’s a whole discovery of love. I participated in the birth of my son and experienced the consciousness of the subtle bodies of my children entering into the room at their conception. If you’re psychic, then the whole process of being a parent is much more multi-dimensional than people talk about.


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