Lancelot Law Whyte

From Primitive Disorder to Twentieth-Century Visual Images





For Lancelot White, "the need of mankind is not for harmony, which is absurd, but for a profound understanding both of ordering and of clash". And the ordering process should be strong enough to prevent the clash exceeding certain limits. In other words a dynamic movement towards the future.

Source: Reyner Banham ed., The Aspen Papers, Pall Mall Press, London, 1974.



Though we do not yet understand the historical path from an ur-chaos to today's images, some points stand out rather clearly.

This path may have led from general atomic disorder to local inert aggregations (e.g., the earth), and by some unknown transition to organisms, and so by a quasi-Darwinian process to species with nervous systems and brains ordering records of past experience so as to anticipate possible future achievements, and the development of these ordered records into images for communication: gestures, designs, spoken and written words, the various arts. And now we find ourselves consciously discontented with the available images in relation to our experience and our need.

A study of this long path from atoms to images suggests the following thoughts:

1. The story is a complete mystery, unless we postulate a universal process of ordering, of disorder becoming more orderly, evidenced in both the "physical" and the "mental" spheres. The concept of order, properly defined, is very powerful, uniting quantities and aesthetic qualities. (The relation of this ordering process to the physicist's theories of disorder, e.g., heat, is reserved for another occasion.)

2. Images and symbols represent the ordering of various aspects of experience into convenient forms that evoke awareness of these aspects. All thought is an ordering process, leading to representations in the brain, in speech, or in visual and other symbols. The brain is not a computer but an ordering organ operating partly unconsciously.

3. Some of the dominant images of the past, e.g., the outstanding myths, archetypes, and works of art of particular cultures, appear to me to emphasize various contrasted aspects of experience. For instance, much Egyptian work stresses permanence; classical Greek, ideal human beauty; a late medieval style, humility; certain Oriental, poetry. These images are permanent contributions to the assets of mankind because they give the highest expression to some feature of human awareness.

4. The characteristic of recent Western culture, say 1910 to date, is clearly not beauty, humility, or poetry but, I suggest, concern with elementals. We have broken everything down to its elements: basic particles, the protein of organisms, ultimate factors in personality, root meanings, one hundred great ideas, geometrical elements in art and architecture, etc. We pretend that we have outgrown the superficial show; nothing less than the final analysis will do! Truth is to be found in bits. Certainly it is now in bits.

5. But history develops in swings, and the latest craze for "richness" may conceal a deeper factor. Obsession with units implies neglect of their ordering - in subtler forms, partly ordered cell nuclei and organisms, and the beauty of nature, man, and man's creations. All the facts compel me to believe that, after forty years of elementals, an epoch of order is now opening - at least of the conscious recognition of the primary importance of order, both in nature and in man's desires. This has been long prepared, for example, in the recurrent recognition since about 1780 that unconscious ordering processes underlie the working of the human imagination and judgment.

6. But if this swing toward aesthetic and scientific awareness of the role of order is to bring a real gain, some scrap of permanent enlightenment to man, it must not only recognize the great variety of specific forms, from crystals to personalities and paintings, but admit and accept the absolute inevitability of clash between contrasted forms (as Shakespeare did). Ordering implies clash, at any rate in this universe of sustained process. There is as yet no scientific philosophy in which both ordering and its consequence, clash, are given their proper standing as the primary agents of change. One application of this idea: The need of mankind is not for harmony, which is absurd, but for a profound understanding both of ordering and of clash that will enable us to facilitate those ordering processes which are powerful enough to prevent clash from exceeding certain disastrous thresholds.

7. Here every aspect of culture has its own crucial role. Every organ of communication can evoke and strengthen the awareness that the species is now turning over a new page, one of challenging tasks, grand vistas, and extraordinary choices. Today the role of the image is not only to evoke past experience but also explicitly to anticipate and suggest possible future achievements. Our greatest need is an image of future greatness.


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