Egypt, Transformation, and the Signs of a Planetary Culture

Written by  Jeremy Johnson

"It seems as if the world is entering the beginnings of a new revolutionary era: the era of 'Global Political Awakening.' While this 'awakening' is materializing in different regions, different nations and under different circumstances, it is largely influenced by global conditions." - Andrew Gavin Marshall, Center for Research on Globalization.


There are certain times when out of the hype of media stories comes something that actually transforms society. Out of the humdrum of political banter comes something truly novel. Every few decades we witness a historical occasion, but what we're seeing in the Middle East is of unique importance, not only for the region, but for the emerging planetary culture.

The spirit of revolution emerges often when times are darkest -- and what better place than the Middle East, an area of the world racked by endless violence and power struggle, pushed and pulled by egypt_protests2_480_25jan11hegemonic empires. Not long ago, it was the Soviet Union that lost their footing to the Western powers, now it's the United States and the West itself that may be losing control over the region.

The spark was set in Tunisia, and it can be said that websites like Twitter and Wikileaks helped influence certain events (such as the exposure of corruption in Tunisia, helping fuel protestors). In the West, the internet helped resurrect the once-demonized news network, Al-Jazeera, which was all but shunned in America post 9-11. Both culturally and politically, certain holds the West has had on the world are breaking down.


Turning of the Ages

What Andrew Marshall mentioned in his article holds a deeply significant and archetypal truth. Over a thousand years ago, the Viking invasions united the European people in fear, foreshadowing the eventual emergence of a European civilization.

In history, emergence is often heralded by darkness. So in our own age, the people of the world are again united in global strife; war, hegemony, industrialization, pollution and ecocide. We threaten to unite the entire world in a collective crisis, in which the only way out is up. Like previous civilizations before ours, the planetary human society is being born in the dark of the night. It's also very interesting that Egypt was one of the birthplaces of civilization. As we turn again on the spiral of time, we intersect with the ancient past and Egypt once again becomes an important symbolic (and literal) expression of transformation.

It's a good sign to hear that Muslim and Christian protestors have come together in a revolutionary spirit, protecting one another while they prayed.

This cultural revolution is also very similar to the cultural fires that swept across Europe in the push, first, for Constitutional Monarchies, and later on for complete revolutions in the form of democratic governments. In retrospect, we can understand that the advent of the printing press, and the subsequent literate society that emerged, helped fuel the cultural transformation at the time (as well as the scientific revolution).

It would be a mistake to ignore the impact the internet is having on our modern society. Like the printing press, it has radically altered the way we get information, and more so, the way we come together. The very structure of the web favors participation, transparency and collaboration. It has subsequently made it possible for websites like Wikileaks to ignite the protests in Tunisia.


Transformation, Evolution:

If we were to pause for a moment and try to glimpse the larger picture at work in our society today, we might say we're witnessing a transference of power from industrial nation states, based on hierarchy where the center controls the periphery--to decentralized and noetic polities of collaboration and participation. This shift is not just another revolution to add to the pages of history, it's a very alteration in the structure of human society, not seen since the birthplace of civilization. Egypt's significance resounds as a symbol for human evolution.


Staff of Osiris, symbol of transformation & spiritual metamorphosis.


Civilization itself is based upon a center (city) that controls the periphery (agriculture, resources, peasants), and so we can liken the very structure of civilization to a kind of "collective ego," whose nature is hierarchical.

Perhaps, spiritually speaking, the death of a controlling "center" is a kind of spiritual initiation for human kind; an invitation to transform to a new kind of human life in which the center is everywhere and nowhere, and the people of the world are united in a democratic culture that is far more complex than we can imagine now.

The shift from a culture based upon the consumption of subterranean fuels to the open energy of wind and sky, from bordered nations to a literal open "web" (akin to Teilhard de Jardin's noosphere) could have a profound impact on our psyche.

In order for this transformation to take place, we have to recognize that oppressive forces offer us an opportunity to transform something leaden into gold, or something we consider to be impure and corrupt into something sublime. What was once a triumphant expression of power and dominion over nature, and other human beings, has now become a tomb we must learn to break free from, and so our global crisis now unites us in a global transcendence. I suspect that this is only the beginning of truly radical and evolutionary changes for human society.

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  • Comment Link Scott Payne Tuesday, 01 March 2011 23:08 posted by Scott Payne


    Thanks for this contribution. There is certainly a great deal going on in the Middle East right now. Lots to take into consideration.

    I had expressed some concerns about the degree to which the West is seeking to identify with what is happening in the Middle East. Many of those concerns I express here in conversation with Trevor and Chris:

    So it probably won't surprise you to hear that the use of the term "planetary culture" fills me with a mild degree of trepidation. This is something that integralists talk about (a lot?), but I remain a bit unclear as to how the concept actually cashes out. And I'm not at all convinced that protestors in the Middle East would cotton well to the suggestion that they are birthing or even part of a planetary culture.

    I could be wrong, though.

    So I wonder if you could take a bit of time to flesh out what you mean by the term and how you see this notion of a planetary culture present in events in the Middle East. And maybe, if it doesn't feel like too much, how you see this idea of a planetary culture beyond just events in the Middle East. In a world where we have no flat surfaces of development, how do you see a planetary culture emerging, sustaining itself, and acting on the world stage?

    Thanks much, Jeremy.

  • Comment Link Bruce Kunkel Wednesday, 02 March 2011 01:32 posted by Bruce Kunkel

    Enjoyed the read and your insights. I agree that we may be on the edge of a major global bifurcation/transformation. This makes me think that the narratives we bring to the initial conditions of this moment are crucial. What are the first principles of a fair and just world were there is abundant sufficiency for all? How can we break out of our own cognitive prisons and set the ground for the emergence of a world based on reverencing the rights of all generations of all species? How must we envision that world and create the stories, structures, and artifacts that may nudge us in that direction?

  • Comment Link Jeremy Johnson Wednesday, 02 March 2011 17:36 posted by Jeremy Johnson

    Hey Scott, thanks for sharing your reflections with me. I think it's true that this idea of a "planetary" culture needs to be fleshed out more (if that is truly possible). I've been thinking over your comments, trying to further articulate my sense of optimism towards what is going on in the Middle East. So far, I think there are a few possible ways to look at this.

    I think we need to be careful how we are viewing these revolutions in the middle east, and not quickly project our hopes and aspirations onto them. Yet at the same time, I feel there is a certain sense of universality in what is currently going on. Slavoj Zizek describes it this way in his Al-Jazeera interview on Egypt:

    "In our multicultural era, we are suspicious about universalism... that democracy is specifically western... but listening to interviews, protestors... how cheap, irrelevant all this multicultural talk becomes. There, where we are fighting a tyrant, we are all universalists. We are immediately solidary with each other. That's how you build universal solidary. It's the struggle for freedom. Here we have proof that a) freedom is universal and b) Muslim crowds prefer religiously fundamentalist dictatorships. It's precisely this universal revolution for dignity, human rights, economics... this is universalism at work. They understand democracy...better than we do in the West [and so on and so on]. No clash of civilizations."

    This is by no means a sound argument. It could very well be projection, so in digging a little further, we have examples like this:

    Interestingly, it is the youthful, internet generations that have helped stir dissent and created a rising pressure for revolution and equality:

    "These revolutions are led by the Internet generation, for whom equality of voice and influence is the norm. Their leaders' influence is the product of their own effort, determination and skill, unconstrained by rigid ideologies and extremism."

    Specifically, I think this hits the nail on the head concerning the center/periphery issue:

    "US and European allies, supporters and business partners of the Arab regimes persistently preferred to deal with leaders who were entirely unrepresentative of the new generation. They were detached from the emerging reality and had no way to engage with the social forces that now matter. It is the growing periphery of the Arab world - the masses at its margins, not its feeble and decaying centre - that is shaping the future of the region."

    I believe this ever-increasing, global communications infrastructure is not just sharing cultural memes (democracy, etc), but stirring a true desire to alleviate the suffering of a people, which is far more universal than any particular system of government or culture.

    I am not sure if folks would consider themselves "planetary" or part of some nascent of a world government. Yet at the same time, if we look at the spreading protests (some now trying in China, Wisconsin in the US) are indicative, to me at least, that there is a "bifurcation" at work, whereby one established structure of power is no longer sustainable because of the degree of suffering it is impressing on its people (not to mention all other sustainability issues). It is this global communications infrastructure which empowers the people, and why so many governments have their hands on the kill-switch (including the US). This to me is indicative that a kind of organically grown, global solidarity is at least in seed form now, not based exactly on a specific philosophy. It's often said that our environment helps shape our worldview, and vice versa.

    Perhaps this global commons is influencing the way younger generations, myself included, view ourselves and human inequality around the world. This is how I see a planetary culture first emerging-a uniting through struggle, suffering, the true and impassioned desire for transcendence. It can be local, like Egypt. But perhaps if we look back at the US revolution against Britain, where many people were simply pushing for their rights and equality (usually with a sense of state pride), yet the founders were influenced deeply by these new ideas of freedom, liberty, etc. Perhaps a similar thing is happening now, only on a more global and complex scale.

    Finally, to end with this: "Open Letter to the World" by Anon:

    "As we learn more about our global community a fundamental truth has been rediscovered: We are not so different as we may seem. Every human has strengths, weaknesses, and deep emotions. We crave love, love laughter, fear being alone and dream for a better life."

    I feel that it is difficult to separate the youth of the Middle Eastern Region, who appear to be catalyzing these revolutions, from the internet generation, which is at the very least instilling a sense of both universality (we are all people, we all struggle) and diversity (we all have local issues at hand, local stories).

    All these ideas are spinning around in my mind. It seems that the older power structures buckle under the complexity, and this emerging global commons, the more it seems that the people of nations will rise up, inspired by others that they too can do something for themselves. This isn't simply middle eastern but truly global, as modern civilization thrives off of the inequality of smaller, peripheral nations, and this expands far beyond the Middle East.

    Just some food for thought!

  • Comment Link Jeremy Johnson Wednesday, 02 March 2011 17:56 posted by Jeremy Johnson

    Continued... part 2... Scott, this is a continuation of my reflections on your questions as well....

    Hi Bruce! Ah yes narratives... so important... You have some great questions. For now it seems this vision of a "universal solidarity," is a good way for this new story to take root. We are all human beings and, perhaps through new means of self-organizing, can empower ourselves to begin shifting the structure of authority from the controller to the controlled.

    It's interesting that in some of the "newer" models of biology, like Varela's "autopoiesis," organisms have self-organizing principles, a form of interiority in which they bring themselves together into novel forms of order. Perhaps those ideas will take root now as the structure of our own civilization begins to shift away from the center which controls, to the periphery that allows for self-organization. I believe that communication technology has a big role to play in this; as an extension of ourselves, a way to empower people and give them a collective, organizing voice. At the level of global problems and global complexity, the older pyramid-like institutions are no longer effective; and so new, rhizome-like structures of organization begin to literally take root and help answer issues the now deficient, hierarchical systems can no longer adequately handle (using deficiency as Gebser might).

    Perhaps this century might see new systems of government which "decentralize" power. It's interesting, for example, that the internet has a similar effect on us the way living in an urban environment does. We become acclimated to the sheer variety of faces there, less rigid in what we consider "acceptable" in our environment. This isn't always the case of course, but cities do tend to be more "liberal" in that sense. In the same way, the internet commons is taking the cosmopolitan, urban center and spreading it to the periphery of civilization. A kind of virtual city that is nowhere and everywhere. The cumulative effect over a few generations has been noticeably towards a global sense of human suffering, and not just LOL-cats.

    As far as a planetary culture goes - I think it will be beyond the complexity of any particular nation, and resemble something more like Lovelock's "super organism," a dynamic and self-regulating Earth. We might see, eventually, (and I'm being totally speculative here), new forms of economic systems, government systems that are not as we traditionally know them today, and more ecologically-minded cities, villages, etc. I see great potential in this century for transformation and a coming of age for humanity. But that's another narrative too.

  • Comment Link Scott Payne Wednesday, 02 March 2011 18:49 posted by Scott Payne

    Lots to consider here, Jeremy. Thanks for your response. I'm going to take some time to sit with everything you've offered and review it in more detail and will try to come back with my response before too long.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Friday, 04 March 2011 04:06 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Thanks for the article Jeremy, and for joining us in this collective project here at Beams. I too feel a shift at play and I appreciated the (historical, transformational) context you gave it here in the piece.

    In thinking about your piece today, I pulled out the only text I have by the philosopher Edgar Morin, the great French systems/complexity thinker. I knew he'd have something to say on the topic.

    Indeed, in his text 'Homeland Earth: A Manifesto For the New Millennium', the first chapter is actually called 'The Planetary Era'! In it he lists a whole series of conditions that are creating a planetary situation. He talks about economic globalization (which he stretches back a few hundred years), globalization through war, the global nuclear threat, the emergence of planetary ecological consciousness, global travel, the spread of media globally (and what he calls "planetary teleparticipaton", where large numbers from around the world watch the same events on TV), etc. etc. What this made me realize is that there have been a whole confluence of forces that have created the conditions for the type of emergence you're speaking about. These are the life conditions of our time as it were.

    I also had something else pop in to my head today when thinking about this idea of a planetary culture. This morning on Chela's 'I Heart My Vagina' article there was a comment by Alex who's from Brazil. On our Facebook page today, Albert from Berlin made a comment. One of our Facebook fans, Eugene, is from Russia (a real sharp guy). We at Beams are following Twitter accounts from Egypt, Tunisia and many other countries. And I thought to myself, this sounds like we're kind of already doing this planetary culture thing aren't we!!

    One last thought for today. I think one of the things that causes people a bit of trepidation around the notion of a planetary culture, is the fear that differences and diversity will be undermined and eroded in this process. This postmodern value has sunk in pretty deep, and this is a good thing. But here's what Edgar Morin has to say on this matter:

    "The idea would be to move toward a universal society based on the genius of diversity (homogeneity lacks genius), which would lead us to a double imperative, inwardly contradictory but fruitful for that very reason: (a) everywhere to safeguard, propagate, cultivate, or develop unity; and (b) everywhere to safeguard, propagate, cultivate, or develop diversity.

    We thus have the following paradox: cultures must be simultaneously preserved and opened up. There is nothing new in this. At the origin of all cultures, including the most bizarre, we find encounters, unions, syncretisms, and cross breedings. All cultures have the ability to assimilate what had been foreign, to a certain extent at least, measured by their vitality, beyond which they become assimilated by what is foreign or/and disintegrate".

    This paradox resonates with me, but because it's a paradox it can be hard to hold open as we move to a planetary culture, where universal values (liberty, dignity, justice) will mutually coincide with local variations and differences.

    Anyway, lots more to talk about here, thought I'd drop that in for today. Thanks again Jeremy!.

  • Comment Link Scott Payne Saturday, 05 March 2011 05:27 posted by Scott Payne

    So I've been thinking a lot about this. Both considering your offering, Jeremy, but also trying to dig into my own sense of trepidation.

    I do think that you are on to something here. So don't take my pushing back as a total rejection or anything of the sort. And, in fact, I think you're on to something talking about culture, but I think we need to be particularly careful when we engage this discussion.

    In an exchange with Chris, I argue fairly robustly for a foreign policy that is more focused on culture.

    In the piece, I want to focus in on a couple of paragraphs that I think are key to this discussion:

    "The importance of civil society in underwriting the success of our western democracies is a conventional wisdom at this point. But understanding just how the cultural components of that society come to pass is something on which I think it is fair to say that we have an exceedingly poor grasp. And insofar as we can ever really understand this process of evolution/modernization on a mass scale, I think that understanding represents a key component to our analysis of foreign policy.

    In and of itself, this is a profoundly tricky area to operate because, of course, our history as regards cultural spaces is one primarily of colonization. And for all the talk of what capacities the British occupation of India left to Indians that have helped to enable their current economic rise, we are also awash in the broken trail of travesty, resentment, oppression, and injustice that our past collective actions have left in our wake.

    So we have that mill stone hanging around neck. In some regards, I'm inclined to look at that history as being the surest sign post that we have work to do here."

    So, I like that you're diving into culture, I continue to believe that we do have work to do here. But cultural spaces are tricky spaces on which I do think we have a relatively poor grasp and so I'm inclined also to think that we need to tread carefully and not get ahead of ourselves.

    When I hear you talk about the characteristics of this planetary culture, I'm not sure that I really hear the outlines of a culture, per se. I hear a lot of things I agree with: impulse for freedom, human dignity, human rights, desire for transcendence -- all good things. But is that culture? I'm not sure that it is.

    Indeed, I think that these things are universal precisely because they are not cultural. They are universal because they are recognized cross-culturally. And so you could perhaps describe them as supra-cultural, they reside within us and resonate with us at a much deeper layer/higher altitude than our cultural fulcrums of identity.

    If we then try to fashion some new culture out of these supra-cultural elements, in some senses we degrade them by trying to make them cultural -- we try to locate them somewhere that is not authentic to their place of realization (for lack of a better description).

    And so by attempting to articulate or fashion a planetary culture, I wonder if we don't wind up actually working counter to our goal of realizing these universal human characteristics.

    What I do think could be a more fruitful effort is to work towards a sort of meta framework for intersubjective communication and understanding between our cultures. A truly inter-cultural framework, if you will.

    There is still a great deal that is misunderstood between our respective cultural frames and I think that part of the effort to bridge those chasms is about translation. Not simply linguistic translation, but actual cultural translation on a whole host of lines and modes of expression.

    One of the exciting things to me about this sort of translation is that it isn't just going to be horizontal in nature, but will some times take on a vertical orientation. And that makes the translation all the more difficult, but also potentially all the more rewarding.

    And in some senses, I think the ultimate goal of such bridging and translation is the opportunity to unearth these supra-cultural characteristic present within, but not of our various cultures and thereby discover those things about ourselves that are supra-cultural and universal via a more robust exploration of our various cultures.

    So there is that diversity within unity piece that Trevor brought up.

    Perhaps this all seems like quibbling, it is certainly a subtle difference in cast. But I do think it makes all the difference and is important.

    Ultimately, I remain skeptical that we might ever really fashion a planetary culture, though I don't hold that skepticism on some strict bias against universalism. I just think that we might be trying to stretch our notions of culture beyond their relevant points of meaning.

    It could be that a planetary culture is indeed possible and the manifestation of such a phenomenon simply lies beyond the horizons of my own development. Lord knows I have my limitations.

    But even still, I think that as far as the efforts of our life times are concerned, a more concerted focus on the bridging and translating that I've described probably contains the best return on investment.

    When it comes to evolution and development, there is no stealing bases.

    How does that resonate with your observations and all the things that are lighting up for you with regards to undoubtedly momentous events in the Middle East?

  • Comment Link Jeremy Johnson Monday, 07 March 2011 18:51 posted by Jeremy Johnson

    Wonderful reflections here. They have each caused me to think more deeply on this subject of planetary culture. Let me just start with your post Trevor. Because I think it has relevance with what Scott has articulated.

    I am not familiar with the philosopher Edgar Morin, so thank you for bringing him to my attention! That seems like a wonderful text and I'll have to look it up.

    The conditions for a planetary era.... economic globalization, planetary ecology, teleparticipation, etc. Are all good points. We are in many ways creating a social structure in which the world can't help but interact with itself. A kind of global city of sorts. All of these "globalizing" forces really sky-rocketed in this century, leading to a great deal of optimism from many social philosophers that we'd see a new "age" by the turning of the millennium. So I think this leads me to what Scott has pointed out...

    We shouldn't be too quick to say that a planetary culture will be the same as we understand a culture today. Perhaps the term "meta culture," or "meta-society" might make more sense. Or we might want to redefine culture on a larger, more complex scale. I know I mentioned this earlier, but I think taking a few cues from biology might help us understand the level of planetary complexity we are entering. Lovelock doesn't consider the Earth an organism in the same way you and I are organisms; it's more like a super-organism with self-regulating principles, not exactly identical to mammals or reptiles or insects, but sharing some of the underlying themes. Teilhard, too, in imagining what the noosphere might be like, pointed out that we are not simply creating a giant mind, but something like a supra-mind, not identical to what we understand to be an individual.

    Bringing all that down to reality, what you mentioned, Scott, about the need to go with a tried-and-true cultural translation (trying to find a meta, in which different cultures can communicate on this scale) - I believe this is exactly what the beginnings of a planetary human society will have. If we define planetary culture (loosely and open endedly, no definitions are final), as a civilization of many different cultures, yet simultaneously understanding and recognizing trans-cultural dimensions, and having that meta, or universal understanding at the center of their society - yes, this could be a proto-definition of a planetary culture. A multitude of cultures which have at their core an understanding of universality and diversity. In the same way that life in the biosphere is a multitude of species woven together in a convergent, self-regulating unity. I think the sciences of life and the sciences of culture run isomorphic to each other.

    Trevor I think you're right that we are already enacting this planetary communication (also friends with Eugene on FB). The interaction between people from all over the world, in different time zones and different cultures is exactly already a participation in a planetary human society.

    Finally, Trevor, the quote you gave was spot on: "a double imperative, inwardly contradictory but fruiful.... everywhere to safeguard, propagate, cultivate, or develop unity; and b) everywhere to safeguard....diversity."

    This ecological-understanding, which embraces paradox and understands that life, mind and culture is simultaneously unique and universal, is what I believe will truly shine through in this century. At least, it must, if we wish to create a sustainable and thriving human civilization without destroying ourselves and the biosphere.

    So what you are saying Scott is exactly, what I think I am saying. There is a universality. It is not so simple and not so much "fashioned" - in the sense that we are having to artificially contrive it. Rather we are revealing, or unveiling it in working towards "intersubjective communication and understanding between our cultures," and as you say, to "unearth these supra-cultural characteristics within."

    So I really do see us talking about the same great "work" for our age. Perhaps the term "culture" is too simple and we might gravitate towards new terminology. Supra-culture, meta-cultural, university and diversity (paradox) are all interesting ideas. It's no surprise that this civilization we are growing (not so much fashioning, it is as if the events of the world that have led us here have not been consciously intended, like we have brought ourselves inadvertently towards a moment of transformation), is going to be vastly more complex than ever before.

    But perhaps that is also a lesson. As civilization now reaches a planetary scale and we begin to create a sense of global identity in this "noospheric city" we call the internet (though the noosphere is so much more), the complexity of nature gets revealed in culture. So we begin to re-learn the language of nature and bridge the gap between the two. I've been reading Gregory Bateson lately for my studies, and he writes often about the "patterns that connect." I think that what we are all trying to do is just that - discover these patterns that connect all of us, mind to matter, nature to culture, culture to other cultures, civilization to Earth, evolution to spirit.

    At any rate, thank you all so much for this engaging , transformative discussion!

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