The Pyramid and the Tree

Adam Cornford on thought and metaphors of pyramids and trees.

Submitted by Steven. on December 24, 2010

We think in metaphors. All abstractions (including the word "abstraction") derive from terms for concrete experiences. Thought is a vast coral, whose "worms" are living metaphors and whose reef is composed of dead ones. As different corals have different characteristic shapes, so various areas of our thinking are dominated by certain meta-metaphors or metaphoric structures. For instance, in their study More Than Cool Reason, George Lakoff and Mark Turner show how our thinking about time is structured by the metaphor of the journey. The structuring goes so deep in our consciousness that it is almost impossible to talk about time without invoking the journey metaphor in one way or another. (Try it.)

Since they are mainly concerned with language as such, Lakoff and Turner demonstrate this metaphoric structuring by recourse to the dead and dying tropes buried in everyday speech. But I contend that metaphoric structuring extends beyond the word into all our signifying activity. Some of the most basic meta-metaphors may in fact be partly "hardwired" in our brains out of our evolutionary history as primates or as mammals_since land mammals demonstrably share a language of facial and bodily expression, of which "primate" is a dialect. Nevertheless, just as we can resist our predisposition to behave like chimpanzees even though we are genetically almost identical to them, so we may shift even these hypothetical "deep structures" toward new ones that better fit our experience and understanding. Such a shift is what I now propose_or rather, as it has already begun to take place, it is what I intend to foreground and clarify.

The Pyramid

Ever since the growth of patriarchy, caste, and class out of settled agriculture millennia ago, hierarchy has been as central to thought as it has to social organization. To begin with, all individuals in a society must be ranked. This ranking is carried out along multiple and overlapping axes: gender (and possession of certain gendered characteristics); wealth (and how long one's family has possessed it); occupation (or hereditary occupational caste); skin tone (or other racial markers); regional origin; tribal or religious affiliation; and so forth. Entire societies must be ranked as well: by size of social unit, military prowess or aggressiveness, degree of urbanization or mechanization, use of literacy or mathematics_or again by type of religious belief.

Civilized thought has typically inserted this social and intersocial hierarchy into a natural or cosmic one: the "Great Chain of Being." At one end of this chain are the gods or God. Next in rank are the spirits of the air, dragons, devas, or angels. A few links further back are human beings_or rather, Man, to whom Woman is subordinated. The next links are the mammals and birds, followed by the reptiles, the fish, the insects and other arthropods, the plants, and finally the rocks and minerals. The reasons for this projection of social hierarchy onto the cosmos are all too obvious. As Marx long ago pointed out, every dominant class inscribes its domination into the image of nature; and for this to be possible, the principle of hierarchy must itself be unquestioned natural law.

Both social and cosmic hierarchies have traditionally been figured as verticality. Since there are typically fewer individuals at each level of society as one "ascends," the Pyramid is the "natural" trope for both. (The independent occurrence of the pyramid in the sacred architecture of Egypt, India, and the Americas is suggestive.) In what must be one of the most ancient versions of this image, the Hindu, the pyramidal hierarchy is also a map for the journey of the soul, which must progress by way of successive incarnations from the "lowest" level to the "highest," up through the layers of species and caste, to be reunited with the Divine. In the scholastic cosmogony derived from Aristotle that dominated medieval European thinking, the cosmic pyramid existed as real physical space, with God at its apex (and everywhere else), and the orders of Creation ranked below in tier upon tier according to the ratio of "noble" or "base" elements that composed them. Dante, in fact, imagined Hell as the inverted mirror-image of this pyramid, an infernal counter-hierarchy beneath the lowest levels of Creation itself.

More than two centuries after the founding of American democracy, social hierarchy is still with us, and with a vengeance. Its principal and closely interlinked forms in wealthy countries are economic class (often figured as the "income pyramid"); a modified patriarchy that depends increasingly on the distribution of gendered behaviors rather than on biological sex; and institutional racism, again tending toward a continuous ranking of behaviors (and skin tone) rather than a binary division into white and nonwhite. Beyond our borders, nations and regions are stacked chiefly according to their "level of development": that is, their degree of integration into the capitalist world system as producers and consumers according to indicators like GNP and average money income. Like the soul in Hinduism, these nations are supposed to ascend the development pyramid until they achieve the blissful samadhi enjoyed by the US, Western Europe, and Japan. Unfortunately, the income-development pyramid is more like those built by the Aztecs. Many of those who climb it do so only have their hearts cut out as a sacrifice to Capital by the transnational priests at the summit. And, like the pyramids of Egypt, this pyramid is built by forced labor and sits in a conceptual desert_"nature" as resources to be exploited_which is fast becoming a literal one.

Not surprisingly, hierarchical metaphor persists in all areas of our signification. Most religions, of course, are resolutely hierarchical in their image of the world. But science too remains under the sway (see what I mean?) of these metaphors, despite recent criticism of such thinking from within the scientific community. For example, physicists still commonly talk about the scale of physical reality in terms of "levels"_the galactic level, the molecular level, the atomic level, the quantum (or "subatomic") level, and so on. And while most biologists now formally reject the notion of evolution as linear "progress" from "lower" to "higher" forms, the image of Life as an Aristotelian hierarchy of species lingers on in textbook illustrations and popular thinking: a pyramid with Homo Sapiens at the top and viruses at the bottom. Even ecologists still habitually talk of pollutants returning "up the food chain" from, say, plants to humans "at the top."In some respects, these hierarchical images have more substance than ever before. Technology has, it seems, fulfilled the Sky-Father's promise in Genesis and given Man dominion over nature. He now possesses the means to affect the cosmic pyramid at all levels from the planetary on down: he can create as well as destroy biological species, design molecules that will do almost anything, and release the energy of the atomic nucleus. But while mechanized society can wipe out or transform whole ecosystems almost instantaneously, it has little understanding of, or control over, the consequences of these actions. By virtually eliminating one species with pesticides, for instance, farmers may trigger a population surge in another. Antibiotics depress the population of a bacterium only to let it return in a new drug-resistant form. Air conditioners and refrigerators shield us and our food from the effects of warm weather; but the chemicals they use are destroying the ozone layer and exposing us to more damaging radiation. As many people now realize, civilized, mechanized Man's position at the top of the pyramid is getting shaky.

The Tree

Here and there, societies still exist in which there is little or no social hierarchy. They may well contain leaders or other individuals whose experience is uniquely respected, and who are consequently deferred to in their realm of knowledge; but these individuals hold no absolute authority. Nor is there much economic stratification: no-one "employs" anyone else, and sharing is the norm. In some of these "primitive" societies, even male dominance is muted if not altogether absent. Far from being mere passive hunter-gatherers, such peoples have stewarded the ecosystems around them very effectively (by controlled burnoffs of underbrush, selective planting, and other forms of silviculture). They do not as a rule see themselves as superior to animals or plants; they regard them as fellow-beings, to be communicated with and learned from as well as made use of. Yet, as Marshall Sahlins has shown, they often live in abundance, spending far less time on material survival than civilized people do.

We cannot return to the way of life these peoples practice, if only because it will not support even a small fraction of the human beings now alive. Yet its very existence demonstrates that social hierarchy is not "natural" to human beings (any more than equality is); that a dialogic or collaborative relationship with non-human nature is possible, one that depends neither on dominative "management" nor on timorous passivity; and that abundant life is denied the vast majority in favor of an artificial scarcity meant to force them to work for money. I believe, along with many others in the worldwide ecology movement, that we must find larger-scale equivalents to the achievements of small "primitive" societies. We must create forms of social organization and technology that allow billions of people to live sustainably in reasonable comfort_and with far more free time and far greater collective control over their own lives than any but the very rich now possess. Otherwise, the pyramids will collapse on top of us as their basis, relentlessly exploited human and non-human nature, either rebels or rots.

Such massive changes will clearly not occur without an equally massive change in the outlook and priorities of many millions of people. The movement will not bring this about solely by rational argument; for such argument in and of itself treats language, in unreconstructed Enlightenment fashion, as a transparent, neutral medium of communication between monadic individuals. (Nor, at the other extreme, will the movement triumph by emotional and moral appeals that motivate people primarily through fear or guilt, since these wear out fast and are followed by numbness.) We must be effective also at the preconscious linguistic level where poets (and ad-makers, alas) work: shifting people's perceptual frames by changing symbolism, connotation, master narrative_and master trope.

I began this essay by asserting that we think in metaphors, and that deep metaphoric structures organize whole areas of experience. I see signs that these structures are changing, in ways that may prefigure social, political, and cultural transformation. I would like to intervene in the process by bringing forward what may be a new organizing metaphor for our experience of collective (social and biospheric) life, one that replaces the Pyramid image derived from thousands of years of hierarchical domination. This metaphor is the Tree. I like this metaphor first of all because of its literal, material value. As many people know by now, the reproduction of life on earth depends on trees, and especially on the tropical rain forests. If we are even to arrest the trend to global warming via the greenhouse effect, we will need not only to save what is left of the forests but to plant vast new ones. And these forests must not simply be tree farms for transnational corporations (or oxygen farms for a "Green" technocracy). They must be what all old-growth forests are: reservoirs of biodiversity, crucibles of evolution, and labyrinths of wildness and beauty. A reverence for trees_not just metaphorical trees but real, living ones that exist before any word that can name them_such reverence is now a survival requirement for our species. For this reason alone it is appropriate that we begin conceiving of our life in terms of the Tree.

Of course tree-symbolism is ancient and various, from the Trees of Life and Knowledge in Eden to the Norse World-Tree Yggdrasil. Particular tree species have been sacred, too, in many cultures. How could it be otherwise? But new tree-metaphors seem to be emerging. At the most mundane level, the new information technologies seem particularly disposed to tree-imagery: the homely phone tree for spreading information; the branching file tree of the computer operating system, whose primary directory is often called "root"; the decision tree (or decision forest) of expert systems and "intelligent" programming languages. True, in these fields, the Net (as in data communications networks, neural network computing, and so on, is a contender for the organizing metaphor. I prefer the Tree, not only for the reasons already given, but because the Tree suggests a common center, a shared support to which all the other elements contribute and by which they are nourished in turn_and also a vertical as well as horizontal aspiration. Besides, the Net seems to be an emergent ideological image for the revamping of large "progressive" corporations, which are seeking to become less rigidly top-down in their day-to-day decision making without in any way altering the ultra-hierarchical context in which they operate. This is probably appropriate, given that the most netlike organisms on earth are slime molds.Let me offer some further, more speculative examples. (To begin with, perhaps I should offer this essay itself as a tree, open-ended, growing in several directions at once. And so I ask for poetic license. The word in prose tends to be a pyramid, in which broad associative potential converges into the pointed precision of denotation; the word in poetry is more like a tree, branching connotatively from the signification the reader/hearer initially gives it into a leaf-play of suggested meaning.)

To return to our starting-point, society: Instead of the hierarchical pyramid of national-regional-local government, with the individual (read "dirt") at the bottom, imagine a tree-polity: a polycentric democracy, whose trunk is the largest scale of the demos or consciously organized people, whose interwoven and tapering branches are ever more local and specialized decision-making bodies, and whose leaves are possibilities for individual choice and self-development.

For this to be possible, the income and GNP pyramids must be replaced by a worldwide tree-economy. The trunk this time can be seen as democratic planning for the common social and ecological good_or as everything that needs to be organized, produced, and distributed in standardized form and at a global level. The branches taper to increasingly local orders of production/distribution and shared good, on the principle of maximum comfortable and sustainable self-sufficiency in each order. The roots of this tree, of course, are in the literal earth_not set down on it but growing out of it. And the leaves, fed by the tree and feeding it, are the millions of individuals who, freed from the stupid struggle for survival imposed by engineered scarcity, can contribute their imaginative energies to the common life.

The kind of political organization_or rather, organized process_that might bring this about must also be treelike. The standard form of all modern political parties is pyramidal, from the layers of careerists, technocrats, and hacks in the typical "party of government" to the Leninist revolutionary vanguard with its cell-and-committee structure. Radially (radically) rooted in diversity, our party should converge in a common program and overall strategy only to branch out again into countless local and finally individual initiatives.

Yet the individual psyche itself is, traditionally, another hierarchy_intellect at the summit ruling the ranked passions, which in turn dominate the body. More recent versions include the triadic Freudian pyramid of Superego-Ego-Id and Jung's famous "old house" from Memories, Dreams, Reflections: a temporal hierarchy with the modern bourgeois furniture of the conscious mind on the top floor, the old-fashioned decor of the personal and cultural unconscious one floor down, and the ancient stones and bones of the collective unconscious in the basement. Broadly, in the "Western" view, the monadic, unified Subject or Self is the uppermost pinnacle, both as ideal to be striven for (whether through education or psychoanalysis) and as daylit convergence of the dark forces of history and desire.

To this I would like to oppose the human tree-being we may call the "multividual"_a body of experience rooted, certainly, in biography (the topsoil of history) but through which desire travels like sap to nourish a branching plurality of personae, some of which may then drop their own roots. What is pathological in "Multiple Personality Syndrome" is not multiplicity, but the traumatic origin of the personalities, and their resultant "freezing" into quasi-autonomous, mutually unaware pseudo-selves. Each of us shows our Selves capable of this same furious creativity as we move through the various roles we must play every day. Most of these roles, in the existing society, are admittedly banal: employee, workmate, shopper, viewer, voter, taxpayer, fan. But imagine, in a communal, democratic, polycentric society_one that realizes all the desires historically signified by Carnival_all the yous you could be. In short, each of us is already a humangrove, stunted by the poor social terrain we presently occupy but capable of fabulous efflorescence.

It may be that what we call the Divine is only the psyche writ cosmically large_or perhaps, a dream-diagram of the relationship between the human and the inhuman as a particular culture experiences it. The God of Moses, a Sky-Father reconceived as an unimaginable sum of superlatives, gave us (through the Book) the fire-gift of abstraction, and allowed us to dethrone the cruel idols of Nature. But the price paid has been enormous. The Almighty has brought us endless inquisitions and jihads. Because He was composed of abstractions to begin with, the Enlightenment was able to dethrone Him partially and replace Him with Reason. But the Reason-God has brought us the disenchantment of the world, the Cartesian schism of the human being into lonely subjectivity and mechanical objectivity. In a final irony, we are now actually ruled by the materialization of this alienated Reason as transnational Capital, an uncontrollable Demiurge that moves over the face of the planet, transforming or destroying regional economies and ecosystems as it "wills." At the end of the twentieth century, no matter what our official religion, our true God is the detached, floating eye-pinnacle of the pyramid on the back side of the dollar.

The only image of the Divine I can respect is the Tree. The ecological perspective understands each life_and the very air and water_as at once dependent on and contributive to Life. The Tree, though, is not only a metonymy of the global life-process, but an image of the resolution of the old argument between monotheism and polytheism. "Aspect theologies," like those of Hinduism and some African religions, which view the Divine as One yet many-faceted, of course offer versions of this. If these religions still seem too hierarchical for my taste, they nonetheless suggest a God-tree, whose countless leaf-faces are beings and whose trunk is Being.

But perhaps the Tree is also a way of imaging the relationship between Being and Becoming. Some physicists now conceive space-time as a four-dimensional tree, its root the original cosmic explosion, branching at every instant of quantum uncertainty into new universes. Some of these may last only fractions of a second; others may become whole new timelines, not "parallel" but radiant, interwoven worlds of possibility-reality: the tree of Alternity. In this tree nest all the gods, including us.

I, all of I, believe in the Tree; I are, have, will, live (in) the Tree.

--Adam Cornford