The deep prophetic dimension of humanity is essential when civilization needs to be realigned with its sacred regenerative principles. The role of visionary thinking & experiences was highlighted at the recent 2023 Psychedelic Science conference in Denver, Colorado by the Female Elders of the Visionary Congress. The significance and necessary capacities of new visionaries are also explored, with his typical nuance and deftness, by Jonathan Rowson in his recent Substack article from The Joyous Struggle...
IT MIGHT SEEM WHIMSICAL TO SAY THAT THE FUTURE IS NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE -- but it’s true. Uncertainty about our personal futures is the perennial human condition, but social futures can no longer be premised on the intergenerational transmission of culture. Today, private interests drive technological change in ways that militate against the formation of collective wisdom in the public realm, while developments in artificial intelligence and synthetic biology heighten catastrophic risks. And political futures are fraught because times of chaos yield dark temptations of order. Perhaps most fundamentally, our ecological future is in doubt, because our cosmic home has become volatile, now more like a variable to be feared than a constant to be relied on. The young especially are now in a serious sense without a world, and by necessity are living in what Margaret Mead called a prefigurative culture, in which the clues to their future are unlikely to be found in the past.
This moment in time will not wait for the perfect articulation of its premises. After years of railing against what we sometimes lazily call ‘the system’, the Kairotic responsibility of civil society actors today is to relinquish the self-aggrandising thrills of critique. We need to create space for the kinds of vision and method to arise that are commensurate with a different kind of context – one world ending, and a new kind of challenge – another world being born. We need vision as
method, and method as vision, co-arising with different stories that are socially born, not technocratically made; not just a new plotline, but a metanoia, a completely revitalised, refashioned and reenchanted arena with new settings and characters and purposes.
And it matters where we start. Humanity may not be the best reference point. For there is surely no Royal We – in fact it may be generative to accept that we live with an Impossible We
. We are only truly in it together
when we learn how to understand power and share it, but that possibility is not credible unless we recognise that it will be fiercely contested. So perhaps each of us really does need to start where we are, even if our apparently humble niches are now suffused with a charged social setting and a beguiling planetary sensibility. As tenacious thinkers with an appetite for what is really going on we need the big picture, but as embodied beings we find meaning in the shifting context of our enacted lives, through what the novelist Murakami calls ‘the steady accumulation of small realities’. Perhaps the most pernicious risk of all is that we become infatuated with despair and trapped in auto-critique about all that’s wrong, holding on to the hope that the next sophisticated diagnosis will save us.
What then might elicit the vision we need? What is a visionary? And more precisely what is a visionary now
? Who gets to say? Why might we need to find and support more visionaries today? (And how do we go about that?)
To put it very simply: a visionary is a person with good ideas about the future. They might have qualities of the prophet or the designer, or the artist, but above all, they see something that offers others a sense of direction.
Historically, a visionary was someone with anticipatory consciousness who could transcend and include the present moment by envisaging and articulating an inspiring form of life and help others to believe in it to the extent that it began to be ushered into being. Visionaries are often poetic, not just for the love of it but because language is an active ingredient that shifts collective perception and reanimates the world’s sense of its own possibilities. Yet visionaries are also poieticians
in the sense of engendering a process of poiesis that brings new worlds into being. For its context, tenor, and resonance Martin Luther King Jnr’s “I Have a Dream” speech is perhaps quintessentially visionary in this regard, though it was specific to civil rights in a particular place and time.
At the birth of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech about his country’s “tryst with destiny” and the moment when “the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance” is similar in its momentous spirit and enduring inspiration, but also in its geographic and historical specificity. Somewhat more recently, when asked to reflect on responses to the Rodney King case in the early nineties, where there was a clear and public injustice, Bell Hooks said it was important for Black people to realise that they were indeed being victimized. But she asked whether rage is the only or the most appropriate response: “What would people have thought if rather than Black people exploding in rage about the Rodney King incident, if there had been a week of silence? Something that would have just so unsettled people’s stereotypes.” Here we begin to see the relationship between vision and method.
There is still a place for vision within bounded contexts, but the visionaries needed today will have to speak to lived experience in a digital and planetary context that is at once nascent and moribund, when capitalism is running out of frontiers, democracy is fighting for her life, and it feels like modernity might be ending. Joe Brewer’s work on regenerating the earth through bioregional
learning centres is one example, as is Nobel prize winner Maria Ressa’s
acceptance speech in 2021 where she says: “An invisible atom bomb has exploded inside our information ecosystem and the world must act as it did after Hiroshima. Like that time, we need to create new institutions…new codes stating our values…a multilateral approach that all of us must be part of.” Such statements are visionary, but their scope and tenor are different. Visions today are not just about the emancipation of one group from the other – though that is there – it’s also about cutting through the delusion that we can collectively continue as we are, with forms of insight and practice that make personal, local and political contributions to saving civilisation from itself.
Today the visionary is still needed to solve particular problems, but above all, they are needed to paint an alluring picture, inspire an infectious feeling, and model a generative sensibility. Articulating how the future feels may matter more than showing how it looks, because the challenge is to pull us towards viable and desirable futures from the conviction that we are, after all, still at home in the world. Since visionary world-creation gives rise to meaningful embodied action in localised (including digitalised) contexts, I suggest the kinds of qualities to look out for in new visionaries today include a capacity to be at ease in the three worlds of inner, outer, and shared realities; to move fluently between temporal horizons; to work with generative rather than descriptive ontologies, to be epistemically plural, agile and grounded; and not to be tempted by Utopia, but instead to envisage the right kinds of struggle. To break that down a little further:
> New visionaries will have the intellectual and imaginative capacity to lift us beyond a fixation with the triage
of time-sensitive prioritsing and problem-solving, towards the challenge of working with legacy institutions towards the transition
to get towards transformation
, which is a completely different world. The sine qua non
of the visionary is holding the vision of the transformed in a way that informs the transitional struggle.
> New visionaries will be fluent with the modalities of ‘the three worlds’ and have the capacity to move between what Perspectiva calls systems, souls, and society
but can also be thought of in plain language as I, we, world, or in sociology as superstructure, social structure, and infrastructure, broadly the world outside, the world within and the world between us. Visionaries should be able to articulate how worlds feel
, not just how they operate, and they should envisage a future for social struggle, and not just for peace, because peace without struggle is often coercive, and tends to lead to violence.
> New Visionaries will see problems
in the context of policy
regimes but they will place relative focus on the paradigms
that uphold those policies and create the problems. In this respect, they will question the setting of the plotlines of modern life, and exemplify Richard Rorty’s statement that “A talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change.”
> Visionaries understand the difference between goals
and don’t let the former obscure the latter.
> New visionaries are likely to be neither local nor global in emphasis as such but oscillate between them as a metaxy in the best cosmo-local style. The sense of possibility visionaries evoke will be informed by planetary context but it will directly inspire coordinated local activity around the world. Their inspiration will come from many places and is more likely to be Afropolitan, metamodern, subaltern, and feminist, rather than europatriarchial redux.
New visionaries will work with generative rather than descriptive ontology. They will question the way we think about the constitutive features of the world, including land, money, time, emotion, family, law, property, institutions, and power. Generative ontologies often co-arise with a distinctive new aesthetic,
for instance with Minna Salami’s writings on Exousiance
> New visionaries will be enchanted by the truth, but in a way that is epistemically plural and adventurous. For instance, they will listen to their bodies and trust their intuition, but they will also respect the intellect’s role in querying, refining, adapting, altering, and even rejecting.
> New visionaries will be future-oriented, but historically informed. They are likely to be post-tragic
in their ethos in the sense that their positivity will be authentically grounded in the awareness of trauma and tragedy, and perhaps the direct experience of it, and yet live with hope as a verb of their own making.
In so far as this sketch of the visionaries we need today is true, how might we find such people, and what kind of support might they need?