The Center Cannot Hold
Yeats depicts Europe in disarray post World War I. A period of mass destruction (not only from war itself but also the Spanish Influenza), the fall of empires meant the very institutions upon which a population depends dissolved – no centers of governance, social confusion. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. What followed however, was the formation of new nations entirely with an emphasis on self sovereignty.
The center cannot hold. It’s also the central motif in Joan Didion’s depiction of 1960s California in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1967), her integral essay on the Haight Ashbury movement in San Francisco. "Slouching Towards Bethlehem… was for me the most imperative of all these pieces to write and the only one that made me despondent after it was printed. It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart." Arguably one of the most tumultuous and divisive epochs in history, 1960s America was marked by unrest - the civil rights movement, Vietnam War and antiwar protests, political assassinations, the Manson murders and the fall of Hollywood glory.
This dissonance, along with the war, carried into the 1970s, and thus emerged a new set of philosophical movements for those seeking higher enlightenment, representing radical ideals and a better narrative to make sense of the world in a time of high confusion. Religious cults were prevalent – Hare Krishna, Children’s God, Heaven’s Gate. The hippie movement bloomed, representing large-scale rebellion against American mainstream ideals, exploring spirituality outside of the confines of the Judeo-Christian tradition and often through the lens of psychedelic experience.
Time is not linear and cyclicality is a natural part of human (and thus societal) behavior. For prosperous civilizations, demise is inevitable. The magnitude of destruction seems to determine the extent to which a civilization can recover – in cases of survival, the emergence of new institutions and new philosophies is what I think is particularly fascinating. Both eras (WWI, 1960s) follow the pattern of unraveling >> rebirth. There are a number of economic theories that attempt to explain this.
The “center cannot hold” theme has only compounded over the last several years and expresses perfectly today. Political and social unrest conceal deeper issues on a macro / micro scale surrounding identity, belonging, and cohesion. The central pillars which traditionally hold populations together (religion, community, work) are undervalued, disintegrating, and in some ways have disappeared entirely, some of which could be attributed to positive innovations in urban design and technology, which we have not entirely adapted to on an evolutionary level.
What good comes from a world that holds no beliefs? Riva Tez / Praxis made a genius video earlier this year that covers this. Central mechanisms for shared value and accountability are important to the actualization of humanity. In rejecting all, we’ve accepted choice overload (endless options and no structure) as a social default, leading to widespread disarray and confusion (the paradox of choice).
To account for this deficit, brands and political issues have in many ways become mechanisms for identity, purpose and belonging, and the ones who can provide this sensibility are highly successful. It’s why “Community” is fundamental to brand building. Psychographic internet niches are also identity drivers (clean girl aesthetic, e-girl/e-boy) – yet each lacks a depth that is fundamental to a purpose-driven existence. As we enter an era of rebirth, it means fertile ground for new institutions, new philosophical movements, and perhaps new nations entirely. New movements have already materialized. The rise of web3 is a good example. Some call Bitcoin a religion.