The Limits of Economic Inquiry

“To know what is useful to a dog, one must study dog-nature. This nature itself cannot be deduced from the principle of utility. Applying this to Man, he that would criticize all human acts, movements, relations etc., by the principle of utility, must first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch. Bentham makes short work of it. With the driest naïveté, he takes the modern shopkeeper, especially the English shopkeeper, as the normal man.” – Karl Marx in Capital

“The concern is not to suppress economic thought as we know it, but to expand it.”

Introduction: Expanding the realm of the economic

In social science a perpetual question of legitimacy is the definition and delimitation of the economic. What is ‘economic’ fundamentally defines with what we, collectively as well as individually, can economize, within which frames we can meaningfully make trade-offs. In an acclaimed economics text-book trade-offs are said to be made concerning: 1. which goods/services to produce, 2. how to produce, and 3. who receives goods/services (Perloff, 2004: p 2). Some domains of our existence are however generally considered to be beyond economic inquiry, and therefore meaningful trade-offs cannot be made between that which we generally consider as ‘economic’ and that which we do not. Critical theorists have lately been working towards opening greater domains of human existence to be compared with economic analysis: how does the redistribution of wealth relate to the redistribution of recognition? Which of these two should come first in political discourse? etc. (Fraser & Honneth, 2003). At the other end of the spectrum of social theory, models from economics are spreading into other social sciences, as indicated by the growth of rational choice theory and public choice theory as well as by popular books such as Lewitt & Dubner’s Freakonomics from 2005, where almost everything sub-lunar is brought under ‘economic’ scrutiny.

This paper defends the legitimacy of an economic approach to society as a chief matter of social science, but an attempt is also made to criticize the dominant conception of ‘goods’ and ‘utility’ in the rational choice and public choice paradigms. The Socratic principle of some ends being more rational than others is defended against Hume’s notion of all preferences being beyond the rational (Rawling, 2003: p 115). Hume famously wrote that there is nothing ‘irrational’ about preferring the end of the world to the scratching of one’s finger. The Weberian paradigm of defining modernity by separating goal-oriented rationality from means-oriented rationality can be viewed as a continuation of this Humean tradition (Udehn, 2003: p 148). Although such differentiation is crucial for modern civilization to evolve, the task today is arguably to integrate normativity with rationality in a functional manner. The aim of this paper is to contribute, with a small step, to the working out of an effective theoretical framework for making normative distinctions and trade-offs that are today neglected by the dominant economic models used in political and economic thought. A framework of this kind is needed because of the relative retreat that economic thinking has made: from being based on progressive liberal theory in the 19th century, to becoming a chief legitimator of the status quo (MacPherson, 1977). Neo-classic economic theory seeks to increase growth, trade and utility, but does not in and of itself explain why this is good, nor does it take into account the distribution of utility. Notable economists of the last two decades like Amartya Sen have worked to introduce an ethical aspect into economic theory proper, but this has stirred controversy and not made its way into the economics textbooks (Morris, 2010). In the public sphere, notions of ‘green growth’, ‘pro-poor growth’ (Angelsen & Wunder, 2008: p. 96) and ‘gross national happiness’ have been suggested. These concepts still require further operationalization in order to be taken into account within a clear ‘economic’ paradigm. They are not clearly defined and usable in for instance financial departments around the world. Indeed, economic thought no longer plays the role of expanding our horizons, but appears to be locked down into the paradigmatic utilitarian concepts of 19th century liberal thought. To evolve beyond its current confines, economic thought must go back to its philosophical roots and redefine its core concepts, while keeping its practicality and usefulness, and incorporating a refined sociological sensitivity.

The concern is not to suppress economic thought as we know it, but to expand it. The ability to – without flinching – hold, control and accept the consequences of hard-lined, cynical theories is very important in any economic inquiry. Tough realities don’t become less tough just because we don’t like them. In life in general, and in social science in particular, it is advisable to expand our ability to, when necessary, accept and take into account even the grimmest insights about social reality. This permits our responses to have more predictable outcomes. Hard truths are often sugar-coated in academic literature and text-books to avoid the stigmatizing of the author as ‘cynical’ or ‘cruel’, because the study of self-interested, rational individuals or institutions can appear to be a heartless enterprise. There is of course nothing heartless in stating the consequences of a relevant fact or interpretation that can be scientifically supported, however unappealing or even appalling it may be. But hard-line theories can also be fetishized, being seen as a sign of that well-needed masculine pride. Cynicism has a certain lure that can cripple our understanding of reality. Theories can be influenced by our personalities, or worse, come to influence our whole world-views and make us blind to great potentials and opportunities because ‘we see past all that’. They can become identities and political defences for unjust social realities. Cynical thought is a powerful tool, but it is ultimately a very poor basis for relating to a universe that literally speaking evolved from dust to Shakespeare, from survival of the fittest to solidarity.

What we need today is not primarily more hard-line understanding of the functions of power relations and enlightened self-interest. Certainly, these aspect of social-theoretical understanding must be cherished and protected from politically correct moosh-moosh that attempts to repress and deny basic truths about human agency: for instance, that all relations are created and upheld through use of power and violence (Foucault, Laing); that there is a very strong statistical correlation between enlightened self-interest and empirical agency (Buchanan, von Mises), etc. But keeping these aspects in mind, what I feel is urgently needed in social science today is an encompassing softer theoretical framework. By ‘softer’ I mean a theoretical framework that allows us to both study society as feeling, compassionate, contemplative human beings and to make tough collective decisions about the employment of resources and dispatching of state violence (i.e. legislation). A paradigm is needed that without apology takes both an uncompromisingly cynical view of society and a deeply idealistic one. Our outlook should be philosophically satisfying and socially functional. Why should we ask anything less of ourselves?

Economic thought must deepen its grounding social theory. It is hence too limited a task to understand what the Club of Rome called the ‘Limits to Growth’. That entire problematic is only a function of a deeper concern that is directly social-philosophical: namely that of the limits of economic inquiry. To expand these limits is the purpose of laying out the following five articles.

Article I. Utility is a means

What is the utility of the Pyramids? This thought experiment is proposed in all seriousness. If one looks past the myths presented by nationalistically inclined Egyptian tourist guides, it is apparent that the Pyramids must have been built with the help of coercion, by forced labour. Thousands of human beings must have suffered under the burning sun for the sake of raising a pile of rocks of little use to themselves, that served only to artificially enhance the grandiosity of their exploiters. And yet, the building of the Pyramids is rightfully considered to be one of the greatest achievements of humanity as a whole. Was it worth it? To whom? The human labor put into building the Pyramids could doubtlessly have been much better allocated to serve the well-being of the inhabitants of ancient Egypt. But the Pyramids stand today as an inspirational monument to human creativity and will likely continue to do so for ages to come. They draw our attention to the cradle of civilization and confront us with the material reality of history, with the ebb and flow of whole cultures, of centres of political power and nexuses of economic interaction and accumulation. The Pyramids served as a wondrous adventure at their discovery and uncovering in modern times. And they are today a major tourist attraction, offering a lot of rich people ‘an experience’ and a lot of poor people a living. These effects were certainly not intended by the architects of the Pyramids, but it cannot be denied that they add to their utility.

“What is the utility of the Pyramids? This thought experiment is proposed in all seriousness.”

The above considerations put into focus certain paradoxical aspects about the classical notion of ‘utility’. There are three tensions that underlie the confusion around evaluating the utility of something originating from another epoch:

1. The tension between utilitarian awareness or reasoning, and non-utilitarian awareness or reasoning.
2. The tension between the immediate pleasure principle of living subjects, and the long-term effects in all future times.
3. The tension between the understanding and interpretation of the acting subjects, and evaluation through the retroactive re-interpretation of historical hindsight.

Does the occurrence of these tensions discredit the idea of utility as a goal of human activity? Not at all. Rather, what should be underlined is that these tensions require of the observer a certain social-philosophical sensitivity for the term ‘utility’ to be meaningfully employed as a guiding concept for human activity. The three tensions should not be settled through a direct either/or logic: for instance, that ‘real’ utility would be that of utilitarian consciousness, working with a perspective of all future times and with the apprehension of historical hindsight. Such a position is of little use, because the tension de facto remains. No, the lesson to be learned is that both extremes of each paradoxical aspect must be held simultaneously, and the tensions must be resolved through the acceptance of their insolubility. Counter-intuitive as such as position may appear, it is the only way to avoid that one or another crucial aspect of the term ‘utility’ is repressed and denied.
The intellectual sensitivity towards these tensions is lacking in social science today, as in the cultural discourse at large. With this lack in mind it is hardly surprising to find that observers bound from different paradigms (e.g. neo-classic economists of libertarian bent, deep-ecologists and utilitarian animal rights defenders) are unable to meaningfully compare their conclusions in a cross-disciplinary manner and quantify the interests they are expressing in a way that can be understood extra-disciplinarily. Instead of fruitfully comparing perspectives, the different perspectives compete to frame reality and define the discourse. In academia, this represents the creation of tropes in which social scientists can rest assured that they have the ‘real’ perspective and that the perspectives of ‘those other academics’ are inferior, because otherwise they’d come to the same sound conclusions, wouldn’t they? Simple empirical observations can reaffirm this state of affairs: how large percentage of Masters students of sociology take seriously the neo-classic growth models? Very few, which is surprising given the tantamount importance that these models have in today’s political reality around the world. And how many economics students take seriously the account of animal rights in a utilitarian perspective, upon which their own theoretical grounding ultimately rests? Again, very few.

Let us look closer at the three tensions mentioned above. A sufficient social-philosophical grounding is lacking in contemporary social science, as the concept of ‘utility’, whether used explicitly or implicitly, is taken for granted – despite the persistence of the three tensions. This ‘taken for granted’ is a fallacy that consists of two parts. The first part of the fallacy is simply that utility is understood as a given, something which has material reality, which it does not. Utility arises in a context where what is useful is somehow defined in reference to material reality and to a given interpretation of the same. Like in Marx’s quote at the beginning of this paper, what is useful to a dog is not the same as what is useful to a human being. And what is useful to human beings also changes along the lines of economic, cultural and personal development as has been shown by numerous scholars, from Maslow to Jean Gebser to Carol Gilligan to Robert Kegan. The second and crucial part of the fallacy is that utility is taken to be a goal, which it is not. Utility is a means for something else. As such utility is an empty slot. It is a void, nothing. Nobody dreams of a life full of utility. We dream of lives full of wonder, love, joy, excitement, pleasure, validation, harmony, bliss. We don’t wish one another ‘useful holidays’ and so on. Nevertheless utility is taken to be the chief de facto aim of our political and economic life. (It could even be argued that in our time, we have a ruling ideology that turns utility into a ‘sublime object’, charges it with an air of sacredness. God is dead. Utility is God. Long live utility!)

Why is it important to point out that utility is a means, rather than an end? Simply because ends in and of themselves cannot be rationally discussed and quantified. That some courses of action generate more ‘marginal utility’ than others is a useful guidance, but only if this utility serves a good end. What if the end is the destruction of a minority segment of the population? The goodness of that end cannot be quantified by existing economic theory! I don’t pretend to give a satisfying answer to the ultimate end of human activity, but as working hypothesis I suggest that the end towards we strive is ‘bliss’. Today economic inquiry halts at utility without being concerned with its relationship to bliss. As Stanley Jevons in 1871 famously argued that ‘to maximize pleasure, is the problem of economics’ (Udehn, 2003: p 145), it may appear that economics is already the science of bliss. But this is far from the case. Jevons’ definition serves only to underline the role of rationality as a means for maximizing utility, without inquiring into the relationship between utility and bliss. Utility is taken as directly conductive to pleasure. It is not understood critically, with awareness of its own radical contingency. The contingency of this link between utility and bliss, as outlined above, exposes the philosophical weakness of the grounding of our economic thought, hence of our modern political enterprise as a whole. The development of Jevons’ thought by Menger and other Austrians (into a science of the economizing of scarce resources to satisfy needs) has made economic thought grow in practical usefulness, although it has not freed economic inquiry from its very limited scope. Indeed, the impressive technical development of economic science within econometrics, macroeconomics and financial economics is largely built on the same philosophically weak grounding.

A parallel discussion is possible on the notion of ‘goods’. Are goods good in and of themselves, or are they good only in a certain context? Does it make a difference in what mind-set and for what purpose a good is consumed? Is the act of producing a good more important than interpreting it? Are some goods only perceived as good, but are really bad? Goods are empty. They only become good in relation to bliss.

So if utility is a means for and end, and this end is bliss – what is then bliss? We cannot pretend to give bliss a positive meaning, at least not in this paper. Rather bliss must be understood as a subjectively lived quality in existence that is always implicit, unreachable, unknowable. Even if we empirically study the anatomy of bliss as a series of bio-chemical reactions in the nervous system of a given living creature, this does not grant us subjective first-person, lived knowledge of bliss. Much like Adorno and Horkheimer warned us, when we attempt to positively define reality, we do so at risk of violating reality, the object. Bliss is to wake up a careless morning and have coffee; to look at the clear, awe-inspiring midday skies; to become aware of a deep silence around us; to anticipate the arrival of a loved one; to fight for a good cause; to work hard and feel good about it. Nowhere in these examples can one find the exact address of ‘bliss’. It is subtle, implicit. Bliss is always already in all living experience, as is suffering. Sentient beings cannot live completely indifferently, we are always somewhere on the scale between suffering and bliss.

If life is a book, a text-line, bliss is in the understood context in which it is read. Cut an exciting novel into pieces and try to locate the exact letter, or combination of letters that makes it exciting and you are bound to fail. However, it is possible to see how the author of the book has used different techniques to create fertile ground for an exciting reading experience. The same can be said of bliss. Although bliss in and of itself must remain unknowable, and although it would be a violation to define it (beautiful home, faith in God, love relationship, meaningful work, good habits, altruism …), what can be known is utility, and our relationship to it. With today’s quite limited understanding of utility, you cannot make trade-offs between different forms of utility: there is just utility – and the more of it, the better.

“With today’s quite limited understanding of utility, you cannot make trade-offs between different forms of utility: there is just utility – and the more of it, the better.”

At the same time, paradoxically, the prevailing understanding of utility is a case of what Marxists call reification, as something insubstantial is given the status of a positively knowable substance, even to the extent that it becomes the object of idolatry. By expanding our idea of what economics is to maximize, trade-offs can become possible between things that have hitherto been beyond economic inquiry. It should hence be possible to expand our possibilities for bliss by changing our conceptions of economic inquiry. As starting-point for such a critical enterprise I suggest the notion of utility as a means, an empty slot. This empty slot is to be filled with bliss: an unknowable quality of existence. It should be easier than it sounds.

Article II. Utility is the result of stream-of-action

Microeconomics is really a microsociology explaining macro-scale realities. It theorizes about the individual (household) and draws conclusions about prices on markets on basis of the expected choices and actions of this individual (household). The argument of this paper is to unfold against a similar understanding: a microsociological basis explaining macrosociological realities.

In Maurice Godelier’s search for a cross-cultural, comparative economic science, he outlined three major parts of the work (Godelier, 1978: p 25):

1. A philosophical part (interpreted here as ‘defining utility’)
2. An economic part (interpreted here as ‘quantifying utility’)
3. An anthropological part (interpreted here as ‘qualifying subjects for utility’)

We are now to take the transitioning step from the philosophical work of Article I, to the economic work in Article III. Article II is here to provide a bridge between the two. By holding that utility is a means for bliss, we have opened the door to making a shift in the micro¬sociological basis upon which microeconomic thought (being the heart of economics) is based. If utility is defined differently, surely its quantifications must rest upon different theoretical assumptions. This understanding of utility is in and of itself not very substantial and practically meaningful and must hence be linked to realities that are empirically observable, quantifiable: namely actions.

Newton taught us that every action is met by an equal reaction. Indeed, no action in the universe is ever isolated, outside a causal chain of more or less distinguishable events. The same is true of all intentional actions undertaken by sentient beings. All actions have consequences, and this has implications for economic inquiry, as we shall soon see. We are now to zoom in on a few completely uncontroversial truisms about objective reality and draw the consequences for economic inquiry (which is of course a somewhat more controversial enterprise!):

  • First truism: from birth until death, all sentient beings are involved in a constant stream of agency. This agency can be more or less conscious, more or less controlled, more or less overt (uttered words versus inner monolog etc.). No sentient being ever ceases to act.
  • Second truism: each moment of each action has consequences that spread in a causal chain, by the laws of physics connected with the whole of the universe, without exception. The ongoing consequences of each moment never stop – they keep working their way through world history until the universe ceases to exist.
  • Third truism: each moment of each action has consequences conductive to both bliss and suffering. No action ever has entirely blissful consequences, and no action ever brings only suffering, which means that no action, no matter how vile can ever bring eternal suffering to all living things.

Many discussions could be held with these truisms as starting points. They put into focus certain existential predicaments that we all face; they form a basis for ethical awareness; they disprove the idea of ‘purity from sin’; they push morality beyond an anthropocentric view; and they guarantee a minimum of hope in the future (as was held by the Stoics). But for the purpose of this discussion, it is relevant to look at these truisms as foundational for a micro-sociology as basis for economic inquiry. Here a term should be borrowed from symbolic interactionism – stream-of-action. This term denotes the stream of constant agency that all (not sentient in this case, but human) beings produce. The term also implies that all actions emerge in a symbolic order and must be interpreted to be rendered meaningful, for their purpose and effect to be understood. Furthermore it implies that such an interpretation is largely implicit, and that the interpretation can change or evolve, for instance by becoming more conscious and critical (Charon, 2001).

The point for economic inquiry is then that all utility must ultimately originate from this stream-of-action. Not from choices made, from things produced, from games played (game theory) or from trade-offs – all these are merely descriptions of instances within the stream-of-action of certain agents.

All action has motive. The motive may be more or less clear, more or less explicit, more or less conscious, but it is always there, even in an insect. It is in the word ‘motive’ – the mover – that which propels action, grants to the stream its direction. Motive always emerges from a lack, or emptiness, something that is not there, not yet achieved, fulfilled. The motive of the author to write this paper is to write something he has not already written (and to receive academic credits, not already received), and so on. This links to the Hegelian notion of a dialectic based around a constitutive emptiness: in Adorno this is a ‘negative dialectic’, in Lacan it is ‘lack in the self’.

“The motive of action is always to affect the effect of future action: we eat and drink so that we can live to learn philosophy, learn philosophy so that we can live better, and so on.”

The motive of action is always to affect the effect of future action: we eat and drink so that we can live to learn philosophy, learn philosophy so that we can live better, and so on. Here we must step away from individual atomism to grasp the full scope of agency and motive. Individual atomism is a limited perspective upon which current microeconomics is based. Symbolic interactionism is also a relatively weak perspective in regard to its critical potential because it still adheres to a kind of atomism. Although agency emerges from individuals with some kind of what American philosopher Ken Wilber calls a ‘dominant monad’ that controls the whole of the organism, and never from social entities like states or firms (that consist of many individual agents), the effect of agency is always social, affecting the effects of future actions of the individual agent as well as the future actions of other individual agents. No man is an island. To further deepen this understanding, one must take into account that the ‘self’ is by no means a sealed entity that can uncritically be linked to the individual agent. ‘Selves’ are in themselves structures that are built in social surroundings (no-self of infant agency, undifferentiated tribal self, modern individualist self, deconstructed post-modern self, and so on). Hence we are left with a lattice or network of interconnected nexuses of different quality, identification, motive and awareness: from these nexuses stream-of-action emerges affecting the sum of suffering and bliss of the network as a whole. This warrants further discussion, but suffice at this point to underline the non-atomic nature of agency.

Hence we are left with the conclusion that utility is the sum of the effect of all current stream-of-action on the sum of all future stream-of-action, where bliss is the indefinable negative that drives the motivation but is never caught directly in observable stream-of-action, the point that is always referred to but never met. See figure 1. below.

Fig 1. All events occur on scale of non-indifferent sentience

The figure should be understood as a theoretical model of the sum of a definable network’s sum of stream-of-action. As we have observed, all action has consequences, and all sentient beings are in states of non-indifference (suffering or bliss). From here it can be observed that actions that bring about more extreme suffering or bliss are less frequent (or less likely to occur) than actions that bring about moderate amounts of suffering or bliss or actions that bring about a more balanced amount of both suffering and bliss (for instance, by benefiting one and depriving another). On a trivial level: It is more frequent to buy milk and spill some on the table than to start a world war or invent a cure for cancer. It should be an uncontroversial claim that the effects of streams-of-action follow a normal distribution as indicated in fig. 1.

It should further be noted that this model says nothing of which actions lead to what consequences or anything about what the ‘normal’ or ‘median’ utility of actions in a given network might be. The white middle is never ‘ethically neutral’. Ethical neutrality is a nonsensical concept. The ethics of given actions are questions that must be resolved separately with a social-philosophical sensitivity towards the notion of utility as discussed above. Given that we are here theoretically discussing the ‘eternal consequences for all sentient beings’ it is important to see that the model itself cannot give guidance, only point out the deep and inescapable ethical importance of our collective stream-of-action.

From here it should become clear that an encompassing economic paradigm used with normative sensitivity should economize not primarily scarce resources, but stream-of-action – that is, the whole scope of human agency. An economic science that looks solely upon what is today loosely termed ‘economic activity’ will miss out on the most relevant trade-offs to be made. This would not be a problem if economic thought did not so thoroughly influence our understanding of the political. However, since this influence is abound it is fair to hold that economics (as in ‘political economy’) should become a critical tool-kit for the distribution and redistribution of human stream-of-action, overt as well as covert.

Article III. Utility can be studied at different levels of depth

Article III attempts to establish the transition from philosophical inquiry to economic thought in which trade-offs can be made. As we have seen, the effect of an action (upon the effect of future actions) depends upon the causal chain through which the action is spread or transmitted. The causal chain can affect wider parts of the network, or affect a target point in the network more strongly if it is transmitted through a stronger medium. Hence the medium through which our action is transmitted is a crucial component of the real effect of the action. All practical tools or technologies can be understood as such action-transmitting media: doctors who use modern medical equipment with scientific expertise can be expected to have greater effect upon the future action of their patients (by saving their lives etc.) than ancient practitioners. Industrial society has greater impact on the environment than do hunter-gathered societies. To denote this significance of effect-transmitting media I have borrowed Kevin Kelly’s term ‘the technium’. The technium is technology studied as an evolutionary phenomenon inherent in the structure of the universe. See figure 2. below.

Fig 2. Note that the technium is not a negative value, of the Y-axis, but a THIRD DIMENSION

Kevin Kelly is a scientific journalist, former editor of Wired Magazine and speaker at many leading scientific and futurist conferences. The merit of his concept of the technium is that it emphasizes the non-anthropocentric dimension of technological progress. When the first eukaryote cells ‘realized’ that they could use that poisonous piss of theirs in which they were drowning in countless billions (i.e. oxygen) to destroy other living matter and from that retrieve energy for their own growth, evolution took a giant leap as the first animal life appeared on our planet. This was an ‘innovation’ of sorts, and the technium was at that time something external, new – it was oxygen. I’m simplifying to a violent extent, of course, but you get the picture. Thus the technium is a broader term than technology as it denotes anything that transmits the effect of the stream-of-action of a given sentient being.

Figure 2 should be understood in the following way: the suffering or bliss ultimately resulting from any given action or ongoing activity is multiplied by the technium that transmits it. The darker the gray areas beneath each point on the suffering-bliss continuum, the greater the effect of the action. An act of aggression matters more when transmitted by an atomic bomb and insults hurt more on TV than at the local pub.

From this figure one can begin to see that utility has different layers, as it were: different levels of depth. Again, all stream-of-action targets future stream-of-action, more or less consciously, but without exception. Hence the conclusion can be drawn that different actions will affect the future sum of stream-of-action in different ways. More conscious action can change future streams of action more thoroughly. Conversely damage, or negative utility, can also occur on different levels of depth. Was the great catastrophe that extinguished the dinosaurs more barbaric than the Holocaust? Most would argue that it was not: no bad intentions were there when the meteor struck (which cannot itself be considered as an act, but rather as a circumstance), no human lives were lost, and no thinking person lost his or her dignity and faith in life. Utility depends on the awareness of the stream-of-action, upon the medium through which it is transmitted, and upon the depth of the awareness of the network of sentient beings whose future streams-of-action are affected. With so many living, feeling and thinking human beings and other highly developed animals present in the world today, the actions of whom are transmitted through such tremendous technium (itself growing with accelerating pace), the ethical significance of our actions has grown to a truly unprecedented magnitude.

Although this initial mapping of utility must necessarily be crude, five levels of utility can be identified from what has been said so far. These levels are of increasing depth, but not of increasing significance. They will be discussed one by one and examples will be given. The levels of utility have always existed, although they have become consciously supported means for bliss along the lines of progress in history. I have argued elsewhere in alignment with Norbert Elias, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (a leading ‘positive psychologist’ and author of the concept of ‘flow’) as well as the classic evolutionary sociologists like Durkheim and Spencer that historical progress is defined by greater interacting integration and individuation. As individuals become more aware of their uniqueness and simultaneously become more integrated into increasingly complex networks of greater depth-of-self-awareness, the nature of the effect of their stream-of-action makes qualitative shifts into deeper, more subtle levels. The levels are the following:

1. Instrumental utility
2. Systemic utility
3. Meta-systemic utility
4. Paradigmatic utility
5. Cross-paradigmatic or Existential utility

The ‘title prefixes’ of utility levels 2, 3, 4 and 5 are borrowed from the ‘Model of Hierarchical Complexity’ of complex systems theorist and Harvard psychiatrist Michael Commons. Although there are admittedly still unresolved problems with the definitions of these utilities, they are presented here in their raw hypothetical form, open to either theoretic refinement or fundamental critique and revision. See figure 3 below.

Fig 3. The five forms of utility and their relation to one another in sentient event space

The point of the model is to summarize the different possible effects upon stream-of-action that actions can have. These effects are what define the different levels of utility. They also form a basis for functionally analysing the division of labour in society.

Instrumental utility (U1) results from actions that serve a practical end of maintenance of one kind or another: to eat, to build, to grow food, to buy grocery, to distribute grocery, to kill in order to survive. All of our routine, concrete activity and work falls under this category, ranging from health-care to security to transport to retailing to teaching at public schools. The maintenance of an equilibrium of stream-of-action increases the frequency of the mean effect of the sum of a network’s stream-of-action. Instrumental utility has always existed but it came into awareness only with the invention of the first simple tools: ‘Hey, I can have more of this maintaining effect if I use this instrument’. This awareness of U1 can be found in chimpanzees and other intelligent primates. In human history the U1 evolved greatly with the introduction of horticultural livelihood, as human beings could then relatively easily sustain themselves and their offspring, greatly increasing the population and hence the frequency of their mean effect of sum of stream-of-action. This is why U1 is marked in figure 3 as an arrow raising the peak of the normal distribution (thus also increasing the total area underneath the normal distribution curve). Note that awareness of U1 is not the awareness of innovation: chimpanzees don’t consciously think about expanding their tool-kit, indeed they consistently toss away their tool after each usage. Members of horticultural societies were obviously not aware of technological development – how could they have been? They just saw instrumental use in things around them, which lead to a major shift in their concrete stream-of-action.

Systemic utility (U2) results from actions that expand the utility of the existing technium. In neo-classic growth theory this is called ‘allocation of resources’, not increasing the derivative of the growth function over time, but simply raising the level of utility by increasing the constant of the linear function (y = b*x +c, where c is the constant). In the division of labour U2 is in all planning and administration: economists, pragmatic politicians, bureaucrats, managers, human resource people and so on. U2 has always existed but came into conscious awareness with the first political formations, where the function was generally fulfilled by or in collaboration with priesthood. U2 is marked by an arrow that pushes the constant of the technium downwards, hence increasing the effect of the full scale of stream-of-action, from the most blissful, to the most dastardly. If we find a smart way of putting into practice something really bad on large scale, like a war, we get more suffering. Systemic damage is some kind of waste of allocation of resources through bad planning, mismanagement etc, which would mean that the good and bad effects of the sum of stream-of-action decreases.

Meta-systemic utility (U3) results from actions that change the theoretical possibility for innovation, for expansion of the technium. When U3 is consciously pursued new insights about the nature of the universe are sought for their explicit potential to bring about innovation, changing the whole setting within which the system can be built. Research in medical science has brought wondrous cures, put into systemic use by states, instrumentally administered by physicians, resulting in the virtual eradication of formerly pandemic diseases. U3 became acknowledged in the wake of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, with the laying out of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620) and the founding of the Royal Society in London. At this point people saw the direct utility of actively supporting scientific inquiry. U3 changes the curve of the technium, increasing exponentially, not linearly, the effect of the whole sum of stream-of-action: suffering as well as bliss. Hence the greatest tragedies in history and the greatest triumphs appear to converge chronologically as the technium has expanded. U3 is meta-systemic because it pushes the reaches of what systems can be built. Examples of U3 labour are the natural scientist, the engineer, the philosopher of scientific method.

Paradigmatic utility (U4) results from actions that change the existing ethical understanding through which stream-of-action is organized. When paradigms change, new thought structures (interpretations of reality) emerge, affecting the conceived purpose of action, including the conceived purpose of all former/grosser levels of utility. Although paradigms have shifted since the cradle of human culture, the more deep-going shifts that affect not only contingent types (names of deities, architectural detail, ceremonial procedures, etc.) but more qualitatively absolute or ontological levels (Aristotelian teleological cosmology to Newtonian physics, traditional society to modernity, etc.) have increased in frequency over time. Unless this trend has somehow been reversed we are likely to experience qualitative cosmological shifts yet more often in the future – a mind-bogging thought considering the impact of recent qualitative shifts like Darwinianism and the general theory of relativity! U4 is when a shift occurs not only in knowledge about the universe but in thought-relation to society and/or the universe: new cosmologies, ideologies, moral philosophies. U4 became acknowledged somewhere during or after the Enlightenment. Voltaire’s catch-phrase ‘I hate your opinion, but I am ready to die for your right to speak it’ is an early sign-post. The founding of the Humbolt university in Germany can be seen as another stepping stone. J.S. Mill’s liberal notions of a ‘market of ideas’ and of ‘experimental life-forms’ were later fully institutionalized and made into democratic norms. States actively support a lively cultural debate and some cultural critics are even highly esteemed. The realization that society’s norms evolve in qualitative shifts was a foundational principle behind Marxist thought, behind the institutionalization of critical social science, psycho-analysis and moral philosophy. In the division of labour one can identify ideologues, critical social scientists and moral philosophers. In figure 3. U4 is marked as an arrow pushing the whole of the normal distribution to the right, towards bliss: for instance by granting society new norms on sexuality and aesthetics or emancipating oppressed minorities. If damage is done at the U4 level, the whole scale is pushed leftwards, towards suffering. The rise of 20th century fascism is perhaps in retrospect the clearest example: with the technium and systemic utility present at that time, the effects were catastrophic.

Cross-paradigmatic or Existential utility (U5) results from actions that deepen the cognitive awareness of the network and the sentient beings within it, making them more sentient. Such change occurs not in thought, but in the pre-conceptual space of awareness in which thought and other cognitive structures (sensory experiences, emotions, etc.) emerge. U5 is meta-paradigmatic because it sets the limits for what paradigms can emerge at all: Christianity or socialism could never have been brought about by cats. That U5 has always existed is clear: the mechanisms of evolution brought about elevated awareness in for instance human beings from what was originally just a hot cloud of hydrogen gas. U5 is existential because it is not located within thought-structure (the subject matter of structuralism as in Lévi-Strauss etc.), but rather in the awareness within which thought-structure arises. Religious mysticism and contemplative practice as developed by the founders of many religions and esoteric traditions serve U5 as they explicitly change the pre-conceptual relationship of human beings to their lived universe (and according to a growing host of neurological research, evolve the cognitive capacities of the brain by thickening the neo-cortex and increasing neural connectivity). Mysticism can range from shamanism to the so-called ‘non-dual mysticism’ discovered more or less simultaneously during the fourteenth century in Tibet and by Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart. Although such traditions serve U5, it was not recognized as a specific form of utility: the spiritual practice discovered was always taken as an absolute, and not as an evolutionary step to bringing about even greater depth in future stream-of-action. Institutional religion in turn has almost exclusively served U1 and U2, by supporting political power and by spreading certain U5 structures. Although critical thinkers of existential insight have defended existential utility for at least half a century (Erich Fromm, Roy Bhaskar, Sri Aurobindo, Jiddu Krishnamurti, etc.) it has yet to be recognized in the dominant discourse of any existing culture, and hence U5 cannot really be identified in any existent division of labor. U5 is more dangerous than any other form of utility, as it brings about the capacity for suffering. Hydrogen atoms don’t suffer; insects do. Human beings suffer immensely. And human beings with greater awareness of their individuality suffer even more (which is why the Holocaust is more tragic than the extinction of the dinosaurs). What is suffering if not an elevated awareness unable to manifest itself, unable to relate to the universe in a manner corresponding to the altitude of its consciousness? An insect does not suffer from the inability to distinguish itself from its surroundings. A human being not able to distinguish her own thoughts from the outside world is psychotic, subject to unimaginable suffering (which is why mysticism, which eradicates the sense of separate self, is closely related to psychosis). Consider the fate of Satan: an angel that falls from the heavens, and is left in hell. Conversely, when a human being with great poetic depth gazes upon the sky or manifests her sexuality, the bliss is likely far beyond that of any insect performing the corresponding actions. U5 increases the scale of the suffering-bliss continuum logarithmically. Future technium is likely to bring about greater possibilities for boosting U5. If this is not done with sufficient U4 development, the suffering could be greater than anything experienced yet in history.

A few notes should be made concerning these five levels of utility. The first is that there is a certain tension between the different forms of utility, from the concretion of the lower levels to the subtleness of the higher ones. It can appear as though concrete levels are ‘more real’ than subtle ones: a nurse or doctor (U1) does more ‘real work’ than a bureaucrat (U2) who sits in the office and organizes the hospital or a medial lab-rat (U3) or the nosy arm-chair philosopher who formulated the principles from which the regulations stem that the bureaucrat follows (U4). Such crude understanding of utility must be seen as a grave misunderstanding. Conversely it may appear as though the philosopher is ‘more refined’ than the carpenter who made his chair. The levels of subtlety must not be used to devalue the different kinds of labor or activity.

A second note is that, in practice, the different levels of utility are always entangled in one another. For instance, an expert at research organization serves U2 but does so in expanding U3 or U4. Also, an astounding part of all U1 in late modern society serves the purpose of maintaining U2, U3 and U4. Furthermore, U5 adjustments can be argued for in U2 terms, for instance by viewing the organizational impact of meditative practices in governmental agencies (Parihar, 2004).

Finally, we must remind ourselves that utility is and remains an empty slot driven by a ‘negative dialectic’ of the indefinable lack or emptiness. Hence what is considered to be U1 is by no means an absolute reality, but only a relational Euclidean point, much like the mathematical concept of the number 1 is only meaningful when put into relation to other numbers. To be very clear: it does not make sense to transcendentally define carpentry as U1!

With these levels of utility in place it is possible to make more encompassing functional analysis than that of ‘conservative’ Parsonian sociology, while retaining a critical gaze and making trade-offs between areas of human activity that were hitherto beyond economic analysis. Such an analysis leaves the ethnocentric understanding of currently prevailing economic thought (the political economy of the nation state that defines utility only in reference to a contingently constructed nationality and what is really a fascistic understanding of whose reality counts – not the reality of animals and foreigners!). The analysis enters a ‘kosmocentric’ utilitarianism that takes into account the suffering or bliss of the universe as a whole – although the political unit of the state can of course still studied for functional reasons, such as its ability to monopolize the creative force of violence (i.e. effectively distribute norms through legislation etc.) and greater interconnectivity of the networks of sentient beings that converge with its territorial borders.

Article IV. Rationality is normative

The subsequent recognition of different levels of utility over time results in an understanding of economic rationality as an evolving entity, not eternally bound by the principles of a certain utilitarian recognition. To account for the construction of the Pyramids by reference to the classical ‘economic man’ is really to overstretch the argument made by main-stream economic historians!

“To account for the construction of the Pyramids by reference to the classical ‘economic man’ is really to overstretch the argument made by main-stream economic historians!”

The rationality through which trade-offs between different distributions of human activity are made is normative, inescapably so. According to the rationality of Pharaohs, it made perfect sense to raise giant graves. According to today’s prevailing rationality it makes little sense to redistribute a much greater part of our collective human activity to philosophical work, contemplation and meditative practice. In the ideological landscape of today rationality presents itself as ‘beyond norms’, just as universal reason. It must be understood that such a ‘pure rationality’ is not viable and that it is very limiting to the scope of our economic inquiry. It is true, that this paper too appeals to the faculty of reason of the reader. But it doesn’t claim to draw conclusions other than those grounded in a normative understanding, a rationality related to a certain set of ideas about what is good and what is not. The normative economic rationality of this paper would by many contemporary and perhaps future readers be rightly viewed as normatively questionable. However, at least the argument admits its own rationality as based upon an ideological view that is connected to an ontological understanding. The ruthless tearing down of every piece of argument in this paper can be celebrated as progress through paradigmatic utility.

Article V. Economics can only be used normatively

It should be clear from what has been said thus far that economic rationality can only be used normatively. This lands us in the economic-anthropological part of the theoretical work, as the economic history of humanity can no longer be written by accounting only of the ‘economic man’ as the author of institutions in the tradition of Douglass North and Mancur Olson (Udehn, 2003). In the light of the understanding presented under Article III and IV, it appears relevant to expand the analysis of economic institutions and their ‘rationality’ to an anthropological work involving at least five ‘economic men’ (aware of U1, aware of U1+U2, and so forth). The anthropological requisites or qualifications for different kinds of normative rationality constitute a matter of great importance if one is to make intelligible trade-offs between the five kinds of utility. Here an important point is that economic analysis itself tracks the five kinds of utility and trade-offs between them, while the economic-anthropological work tracks the awareness and interpretation through which utility arises in stream-of-action. Such a distinction greatly increases the scope of economic inquiry.


Angelsen, Arild & Wunder, Sven (2006): Poverty and Inequality: Economic Growth is Better Than its Reputation. In Banik, D (ed): Poverty, Politics and Development.

Charon, J.M (2001): Symbolic Interactionism. Gale: Prentice Hall.

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Godelier, Maurice (1972): Rationality and Irrationality in Economics. New York: New Left Books.

Macpherson, C.B (1977): Politics: Post-liberal Democracy. in Blackburn, R. (ed.): Ideology in Social Science. Glasgow: Fontana Press.

Morris, C. (2010): Ethics and Economics. in Amartya Sen. Cambridge Press.

Parihar, D.R. (2004): The Impact of Vipassana in Government. Igatpuri: Vipassana Research Institue.

Perloff, J.M (2003): Microeconomics 3rd ed. Berkeley: UC Press.

Rawling, P. (2003): Decision Theory and Degree of Belief in S.P Turner & P.A Roth: The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Hong Kong: Blackwell Publishing.

Undehn, Lars (2003): The Methodology of Rational Choice in S.P Turner & P.A Roth: The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Hong Kong: Blackwell Publishing.

Wilber, Ken (2004): Integral Psychology. Boulder, Co: Shambala Press.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.

Revolutions of Cultural Capital

The world hardly noticed when the Danish party The Alternative snuck their way into parliament with almost 5% of the votes, less than two years after its founding was announced. And why should the world notice such menial, peripheral affairs in the quiet corners of the world? Because this event reveals a certain greater cultural pattern that come to affect the world at large. What we see is the tendency for cultural capital to organize and out-compete financial capital.

“Economic capital, in this case, ‘trickles down’ through sexual and social capital. Exchanges take place. Society stratifies into male power, female beauty and side-kick friends.”

You may be familiar with the idea that there are different forms of capital in society.

Karl Marx argued that the logic of economic capital is what drives modern society and explains large parts of its social and political relations. Pierre Bourdieu argued that in modern French society, there is not only economic capital, but also cultural capital. The hommes de lettres, the cultural elite, were powerful and had their own ways of expanding their form of capital. Bourdieu also added social capital to the model – how well connected and cool you are. Political scientists, like Robert Putnam, have discussed social capital in a somewhat different sense, namely that some societies have more of it and some less – that people trust each other, etc. Later on, other forms of capital have been tried out and developed, such as sexual capital (that you’re hot etc. – a term coined by Catherine Hakim). I would perhaps like to add other forms, such as emotional capital (that you have more energy and make people feel happy etc.) and physical capital (being vital and healthy or being an athlete, this has also been discussed by sociologists, like the Danish masculinity researcher Martin Munk). There is also symbolic capital, which I will get back to.

Exchanges of capital – a Hollywood example

Oh, and you can exchange these forms of capital for one another – in different contexts, in different ways, at different rates. It’s not like Swiss francs and British pounds, where the rates are set at any one time. But if you are learned or sexy, likelihood of you having really rich or well-connected friends increases. Think about that ‘romantic comedy’ where Jennifer Lopez is an Hispanic cleaning lady from Brooklyn and falls in love with a rich member of congress. She is hotter and more overbearing than his other (upper class) girlfriend, which wins her the wedding ring and access to the upper echelons of society. In the happy cut-scene ending, she gets to run a business of her own, and her cleaning lady friends (who were not as hot) get to work there as well. The friends have enough economic and social capital to be close to the hot chick at work, which grants them a share of her dividend. If they were unemployed or less companionable, they would have missed out. Economic capital, in this case, ‘trickles down’ through sexual and social capital. Exchanges take place. Society stratifies into male power, female beauty and side-kick friends.

Maid in Manhattan (2002) is of course a lousy movie, not only for its predictable and dumb story, but primarily for its gender and class biases. 13 years later, we are still waiting for the movie where a hot male Indian immigrant cleaning man called Sandeep has sex with a powerful, good-natured, WASP older female politician and wins socio-economic success as a result – a success he generously shares with his somewhat less sexy ethnic buddies Siddhart and Kareem. I’m sure it would do better than two out of five stars on IMDB.

But then again, both plots are equally unrealistic. In reality, the politician would have dumped the cleaning lady after sex and gone after someone better culturally and socially equipped to be his partner in the social arenas in which he must compete and show results. The reason that these plot-lines remain Hollywood fantasies is that they look at financial, social and sexual capital, but miss out on cultural capital. In any real situation, the Brooklyn lady, her interests and tastes, her conversation topics, her general educational refinement, even her way of moving her body, would have been an embarrassment to the congressman. She lacks cultural capital – something made invisible in the movie by the strangely middle class demeanor displayed by Jennifer Lopez in her role (and her kid is also strangely and neutrally middle class). The powerful politician would appear to others not as magnanimously class-blind, but as sexually perverted, using his position to get a woman who can offer him a beautiful body, but cannot be his equal.

Ours is a cruel world, when viewed with sociological goggles. What I aim to show with this excursion into cheap Hollywood fantasies is that different forms of capital are exchangeable with one another – and how naive we must be to view the world without understanding cultural capital and its growing power. If you want to live in a Hollywood fantasy, that’s fine. But if you want to see what’s going on in the world and change the social games of life towards being more fair, transparent, forgiving and abundant, you need to see what capital is and how it runs the world. We are going from a world run by economic capital, to a world run by cultural capital.

Capital – a general definition

So what is a capital, a general definition that goes for both money, fashion, book-smarts, sex, trust, coolness – the whole shebang? Here is a definition, Hanzi-style:

Something that creates a positive feedback loop
which changes social relations
so that power is accumulated
for the person or organization to which the feedback loop is linked.

Okay? So anything that makes you more powerful vis-à-vis others, and that can grow and expand itself by proper management, is capital. The positive feedback loop means that you tend to get more of it once you have a certain amount, it creates an advantage from which you can get more of the same or more of similar. It would be possible to add another dimension: capital must have some kind of psychological lure or desirability. There must be something we can fetishize, something we can crave, possess, call our own, and/or be possessed by.

This general definition lets us know something more about cultural capital. It is not the same as being intelligent, having a high IQ or a high cognitive stage of development. It means that you have better mastery of more symbols, i.e. words and ideas (or names and references); that these symbols are more generally relevant and applicable to the world around you; that you know and understand more creative and abstract ways to put these symbols together; that you know which names and references are seen as ‘good taste’, in which social contexts and why; and that you have a more intimate relationship to the fine and subtle dimensions of the symbols and how to use them. The more you get the drift of the world around you, the more new cool and useful symbols you tend to come across and master.

“Simply: cultural capital means to be intimately in tune with the society you live in.”

Simply: cultural capital means to be intimately in tune with the society you live in. It takes different forms: knowing authors like Hannah Arendt, Aldous Huxley or Theodor Adorno, knowing the culture of the Burning Man festival (and understanding its values), knowing arts and international relations, knowing the logics of various indigenous cultures, knowing many brands of music and being able to see how they make a difference in society, knowing the Silicon Valley culture, knowing the major ideas of the major philosophers and who contends to be a great philosopher today, understanding the Internet Age, understanding sarcasm, irony and sincerity, understanding different religions, political movements and spiritual traditions, knowing about fashion and understanding what drives it, speaking more languages, knowing organic gardening and cool ways to work out … You get the picture.

Who has cultural capital?

In today’s society, especially in countries that epitomize the social structures emerging in our time, like Denmark, a certain pattern is becoming increasingly evident.

High cultural capital is most concentrated to educated young people, especially young women. These are urban, liberal, post-materialist, cosmopolitan, environmentally oriented, individualistic, digitalized, artistic and often have other practices than monogamous heterosexuality.

Low cultural capital is being concentrated at the opposite end in Danish society (and similar societies): older, lower education and often male. These are more rural, conservative, nationalistically inclined and see themselves as ‘good honest folks’ as opposed to those snobs. The snobbishness of those rich in cultural capital can be derided in class terms, terms of being ‘real’ and normal or respectability/decadence or lacking responsibility and realism, in nationalistic terms and sometimes in sexist, hetero-normative and homophobic terms.

And while it may appear, on a superficial level, that the lower cultural capital side is winning all the votes – we see nationalist parties storming ahead all across Europe and parallel tendencies in the US and in Denmark the populist Danish People’s Party is second largest after the social democrats – we must not be fooled into failing to see the power structure that is crystallizing: the people with the highest cultural capital are increasingly running the show. If nothing else, the demographics work strongly in favor of cultural capital. The uneducated, smoking male has a much harder life and much less time left to live than his anti-racist, yoga-practicing fellow gay citizen with a PhD.

Cultural Capital ruling politics

So a chief reason that Denmark has this new progressive party called The Alternative who want to transform political culture into friendlier deliberation, listen more closely to citizens and use open citizen ‘idea labs’ and playful performances to engage the public in transition to environmental sustainability, is that there has been a sufficient accumulation of cultural capital. Cultural capital has accumulated to a sufficiently large group for a distinct ‘creative class’ interest to emerge in society, now being clearly articulated and manifested. In other words, enough people are equipped with an intuitive understanding of our time and with all manners of artful, playful and psychological toolkits to create this kind of organization.

Initially mocked by the media as star-eyed idealists, the movement soon became the media’s discretely held darlings. The people working in the media themselves largely share the same class interests and tend to be sympathetic to the values of the new party. They understand the friendly winks of irony and the idea of not taking oneself too seriously and generally return in kind with a friendlier tone in their criticisms and caricature images in printed papers. Organized cultural capital can automatically get ahead in the media – it doesn’t even have to buy it like financial capital does.

The Alternative critically pictured as silly but with a kindly wink in the media.

But it’s not only that. The party’s move to speak in a friendlier and more transparent manner – a skill that arguably can require more nuanced world-views, greater abilities to take the perspectives of others and better mastery of the spoken word (i.e. cultural capital) – is paying off. When the party entered parliament their first speech, held by Rasmus Nordqvist, was one that commended all the other parties for their different contributions and perspectives. When conservative politicians criticize the party for being weird, sect-like dilettantes and take their different playful offices and meeting rooms as an example, they appear small-minded and silly. The Alternative seem all the more magnanimous by not responding in kind.

“When the party was called ‘a bunch of circus clowns’, their members quickly produced this video, with party leaders pretending to partake in all manner of clown acts while discussing serious political issues such as sustainability, welfare and entrepreneurship.”

Already during the elections, the party showed that their members’ higher cultural capital was useful. They refused to put up their election posters before time, and instead designed smaller, cheaper posters that would fit in the off-hand spots left over from the other cheating parties. This was a media event and a young, kind looking man barely 20 years old calmly reported on TV that there’s room for everyone.

When the party was called ‘a bunch of circus clowns’, their members quickly produced this video, with party leaders pretending to partake in all manner of clown acts while discussing serious political issues such as sustainability, welfare and entrepreneurship:

This should be contrasted with the Danish Conservative Party, who have humongous financial means, so many contacts to the industry, and a very established electoral tradition, and miserably failed to produce any positive response in the electorate or the media. Enough cultural capital in one place simply beats financial capital in today’s media-centered world of displays and surfaces.

The party also hi-jacked media events in different ways, for instance by means of their glowing green color showing up everywhere and people standing in the background as audience during TV-interviews, displaying a big textile ‘Å’, the party’s symbol. To create events that are fun and engaging like this without involving sports or military parades is also something that requires cultural capital, including an understanding of today’s media landscape.

By having the most inclusive and idealistic agenda, party representatives are generally asked questions about how doable their ideas are. But because the party is in opposition, their chief mission is to remain symbolically, rhetorically and morally on top. Given that their more politically correct opinions are generally easier to defend, they have all the guns on their side in the long run.

The main challenge is not to dominate the political dialog or to rule Denmark – but, indeed, to include also those segments of the population that are feeling confused and estranged by their sudden success and growing impact.

Cultural Capital ruling Economic Capital

But the rabbit hole goes deeper. And yes, this really is Alice in Wonderland, a world turned upside-down. Because what we are seeing is a symptom of a greater and more profound change that is global and irreversible (unless we have ecological crises etc.).

The deeper reason that The Alternative shows up is that we now live in a globalized economy with vast post-industrial geographic zones and transnational social groups that economically dominate the rest of the world. In this global system of information technology and abundance, resources and information are no longer as scarce (at least not in the post-industrial zones). What is scarce is instead the ability to navigate this great, chaotic system – i.e. knowledge and ideas for combining the information and resources in beneficial ways.

“This means that out of two groups, where one is very rich and the other very high on cultural capital – the latter group will dominate the former.”

This means that out of two groups, where one is very rich and the other very high on cultural capital – the latter group will dominate the former. Cultural capital will be able to dictate the values and ideas of economic capital, and will be able to trade its own value at a very favorable rate. The cultural capital will be able to better capture the hearts and minds of people, making them work harder, for less money, towards more critically informed and productive ends. This is because there is enough abundance to let people get an education, a computer and a flat, and from there extra riches simply make much less difference than better, more sensitive and more inspiring ideas. Even if China has the assembly lines, Europeans trade their cultural capital at a very good rate and become richer.

… Which creates a new class structure. It is no longer very cool to be rich. In fact richness increasingly has an air of ridicule to it. And to flaunt wealth is considered bad taste. Cultural capital creates the highest form of social prestige. It is this prestige that makes it symbolically more valuable, being imbued with more symbolic meaning, making the old masters of the world – the wealthy – feel like silly brutes in its presence. Cultural capital is taking over economic capital as the main source of symbolic capital, as well as the main source of total capital. The young creatives are really more privileged and powerful than the rich magnates. It is a part of their self-image that they are romantic underdogs, but nobody is fooled, really.

This creates a deep frustration, a lot of violent reactions from otherwise pretty calm and normal middle and working class people. But their angry reactions reveal them and they unwittingly contribute to the slow and psychologically painful – but politically necessary – revolution of cultural capital.


I insist that you view and listen to today’s song, ‘The Perverted Dance’ with Klemen Slakonja as Slavoj Žižek.


Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.

Situating Zavarzadean Metamodernism, #6: Transcendence of the Dialectical in Zavarzadean Metamodernism

In this last of six ruminations on recent developments in metamodernism, I offer a detailed outline of Zavarzadeh’s approach to both conventional narrative and postmodern dialectics. This outline confirms Zavarzadean metamodernism—both literary and cultural—not only as a new paradigm but also one which, albeit without direct citation to Zavarzadeh, contemporary metamodernists have continued to explore in their own writings. My hope is to re-situate Zavarzadeh as not only the man who coined the term “metamodernism” in the mid-1970s, but also a (still living) scholar who’s given us much of the term’s contemporary valence. The previous rumination in the series can be read here: #5: Reading Frederic Jameson Against Mas’ud Zavarzadeh

The chief trait of the literary “metamodernism” identified by Mas’ud Zavarzadeh in 1975 was its resistance to the dialectics of both Modernism and “anti-modernism” (postmodernism). Metamodern literature, wrote Zavarzadeh, “refuses simplistic either/or approach[es] to the experiential situation and establishes, through its dual fields of reference, a double perspective” that is neither exclusively “self-referential or out-referential.” We hear in this statement by Zavarzadeh the assignation to metamodernism of the “both/neither” status (or, as I’ve theorized it, “both/and”, as to be two very different things at once is to be a new thing altogether) that Vermeulen and van den Akker have likewise attached to metamodernism in replacement of the “either/or” reasoning of the dialectical.

Other “aesthetic and ideational approaches to the art of narrative” Zavarzadeh associates with the metamodern are:

1. A philosophy of “zero degree of interpretation,” meaning that an artwork does not seek to either construct a private or universal metaphysics nor deconstruct any existing private or universal metaphysics. According to Zavarzadeh, metamodern authors do not seek to offer any explicit, conspicuous interpretation or critique of reality because reality has become so indistinguishable from fiction that attempting to speak of “reality” at all is a non-starter. We can distinguish this immediately from the view of (say) neo-Marxist postmodernists, for whom the question of how to deconstruct reality into a series of cogently analyzed dialectics is not merely a parlor game but the entirety of their enterprise past and present.

2. A belief that art ought aim to be neither “significant” (as we often saw was the ambition of the High Modernists) nor “absurd” (the sort of pejorative we might associate with work like Warhol’s “Pop Art”). Metamodernists eschew both the “significant” and the “absurd” because, as Zavarzadeh put it in 1975, “daily experience…simply is.” What this suggests, in the work of individual metamodernists, is that idiosyncratic daily experience can and should be presented “as if” it is merely workaday data—no matter how strange it might seem to a casual observer. This idea of treating the extraordinary as ordinary, and vice-versa—aligning the two not in a dialectical relationship but a juxtapositive one—calls to mind the “as if” reasoning of Kant that would later be mentioned by metamodern scholars Vermeulen and van den Akker. The idea here is that even that which seems impossible or uncanny or otherworldly can be treated “as if” it is simply daily experience: neither significant or absurd, merely what “is.” Likewise, daily relationships and occurrences can be rendered and indeed experienced as if they were, in a sense, sublime.

“As a “post-postmodernism,” metamodernism asks, “What happens when postmodernism has not only crystallized in the arts but become so ubiquitous and saturated in the culture—so terrifyingly universal—that art can only respond from ‘outside’ this condition by somehow transcending it?”

3. An interest in treating facts—at both the “international, national, and personal levels,” per Zavarzadeh—as simultaneously eternal and unstable. Whereas postmodernism underscores the contingent nature of “facts” by dialectically presuming that the end of facts-qua-facts means also the “end of history” (that is, an inability to, using facts, construct any ongoing metanarratives whatsoever), Zavarzadean metamodernism presumes that fact-dependent metanarratives continue to exist (and must continue to exist) and be given practical import by their creators, but are nevertheless necessarily “unstable” at the international, national, and personal levels. Easily read into this Zavarzadean principle is that the instability of metanarrative is caused primarily by the tension between how metanarratives operate at the international, national, and personal levels. For instance, an idiosyncratic, fact-based metanarrative may remain “stable” at the personal level for quite some time—even a lifetime—even as it has virtually no purchase whatsoever, or simply an exceedingly brief lifespan, at the local, national, and/or international levels. We can contrast this view of metanarrative to the critiques of capitalism inherent in postmodernism, which critiques do not so much presume either the death or the multiplicity of metanarratives but rather that the single culturally dominant (“neo-liberal”) capitalist metanarrative was and is simply wrong—and that a new, neo-Marxist metanarrative (say) offers an adequate replacement. This is why we find, in postmodern scholarship, not the embrace, as in metamodernism, of simultaneous and multiple/infinite metanarratives, but rather promulgation of a discrete number of passionately defended and resolutely counter-institutional metanarratives (like those offering resistance to colonialism, white supremacy, misogyny, and transphobia). To be clear, nothing in metamodernism seeks to invalidate any of these critical metanarratives; metamodernism merely conjoins them with others—international, national, local, and, yes, entirely personal and idiosyncratic—and in turn complicates their public valences.

4. While Zavarzadeh observed, in 1975, that themes of “alienation, deracination, and victimization” have often been “symbolically incorporated into the concentrated experience of modernist fiction,” he also noted that these conditions—ubiquitous thematically in Modernism—have become the lived (not merely fictionalized) experience for most people. In writing that alienation, deracination, and victimization had become “universal conditions” by 1975, Zavarzadeh correctly observed the operation of late capitalism in American culture by the time of the Ford Administration. What was new, however, in the analysis—in other words, what permitted Zavarzadeh to project this state of affairs forward to the production of literature in the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond—was the scholar’s belief that this “alienation, deracination, and victimization” would be fed back into literature as a sort of invisibility. A controversial claim, Zavarzadeh’s belief that alienation, deracination, and victimization were registered as “no longer realistic” in metamodern writing (simply because universal, and thus no more “realistic” than anything else) pushes against even the postmodernism of today—which remains typified by its formal instantiation, in literature, of alienation, deracination, and victimization. The idea that popular culture (e.g. the Internet Age) might so alienate, deracinate, and victimize all persons subjected to it—not merely discrete classes of persons—and that literature might therefore, in metamodernism, no longer be able to register that state as an isolated phenomenon, was in 1975 a radical submission. It remains so today. Moreover, it’s one that not only surprises but deeply offends the postmodern sensibility. Yet this is the very reason why, say, the metamodern animated programs on The Cartoon Network (e.g. “Adult Swim”) do not investigate or ruminate upon alienation, deracination, or victimization but rather baldly demonstrate how life is when these conditions are always-already fully internalized and thus environmental.

5. Per Zavarzadeh, metamodern literary art implicitly responds to “the continual upheavals and the ongoing crisis in values in recent times [of] our total environment…an extended ‘extreme situation.’” As the “ongoing crisis of values” described by Zavarzadeh is clearly not a Modernist invention—indeed, the very purpose of the Modernist novel discussed by Zavarzadeh was to resolve values crises using purportedly universal, fully-interpretive metanarratives—it is clear that he is describing an “ongoing crisis” which, by 1975, was conspicuously the product of the postmodernism of the late 1950s and much of the 1960s. In this respect metamodern writing is a response to the “crisis of values” produced by postmodernism’s relativistic-yet-dialectical relation to truth. Moreover, Zavarzadeh situates metamodernism as a direct response to “a technetronic reality that defies human moral understanding,” referencing “computers” (and even something as specific as the then-unheard-of oddity of “cybersex”) as one particular culprit of our contemporary “ecological and demographic environment.” No postmodernist worth his or her salt would call the dialectics of our computer-driven ecological and demographic environment “beyond moral understanding,” as in fact postmodernism strives to use moral relativism and deconstruction as tools to tame into cogency—not spin into ambiguity or literal impossibility—a moral understanding of our world. Zavarzadeh’s position in 1975 thus remains, again, every bit as radical today as it was in the 1970s. It was, and remains, a rebuke of what has come to be thought of as the postmodern position.

6. Zavarzadeh describes literary metamodernism as a series of “empirical fictions” constructed of contradictory elements (“empirical fiction” being itself, of course, just such a paradox). Specifically, Zavarzadeh does not identify metamodern literature as “ironic”—for to say so would have been merely to describe postmodernism—but as an interplay between “heavy symbolic load” (a vestige of Modernism) and “ironic overtones” (an appearance or sense—but not necessarily the reality—of irony that we even today associate with early metamodernism rather than postmodernism). A word Zavarzadeh specifically used in 1975 to describe metamodern art was “uncanny”—precisely the term used today by cultural critics like Jerry Saltz or Vermeulen and van den Akker to situate work we might consider metamodern. Postmodern artwork, such as Warhol’s visual art, was neither uncanny nor a defiance of any/all moral understanding; it was both literally and figuratively “canny” inasmuch as its critiques were material, relevant, and, to any trained eye, conspicuous. One cannot enter into a dialectic with capitalism, or with Modernism’s artificial separation of High and popular culture, without staking out a position that is anything but ambiguous. Metamodernism, in contrast, not only abides in but derives its strength from a series of ambiguities that are particular to it as a cultural paradigm. (Other terms and phrases used by Zavarzadeh to describe metamodern art, all of which are still used today for the same purpose, are “weird,” “constantly unfamiliar,” “extravagant in its contradictions,” “almost escapist,” and attributable in large part to “science-fictional technology.”)

7. As a “post-postmodernism,” metamodernism asks, “What happens when postmodernism has not only crystallized in the arts but become so ubiquitous and saturated in the culture—so terrifyingly universal—that art can only respond from ‘outside’ this condition by somehow transcending it?” What was clear in Zavarzadeh’s 1975 analysis was that he was describing “emerging” phenomena in literature that responded to an ongoing and in fact worsening condition: as he wrote, “the perplexing fictivity of the real increases as the century wears on.” Those who misread Zavarzadeh’s essay as a “retrospective” of some kind grossly misstate the ambition behind the scholar’s coinage of metamodernism, which was, simply, to imagine how literature might continue to develop for the remainder of the twentieth century and beyond. While Zavarzadeh did identify early adopters of what he referred to as an “historical and cultural period”—for instance, Thomas Pynchon—many of those novelists who are now universally acknowledged as metamodern, such as David Foster Wallace, not only self-describe as being in the mold of Pynchon but indeed in some instances began conceptualizing their metamodern work (such as Wallace with Infinite Jest) in the early to mid-1980s, just a few years after Zavarzadeh coined the term “metamodernism.” To the extent that at least one prominent metamodernist who demurs from Zavarzadeh’s reading of the term insists that “no work prior to 1990 can properly be termed metamodernist,” it bears repeating that Wallace—avowedly metamodern in the view of this and nearly all other metamodernists today—began writing his metamodern magnum opus in 1984 and (by his own admission) began experiencing the cultural logic that informed his later work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This too is consistent with the timeline envisioned by Zavarzadeh—as opposed to those who now affix metamodernism to a post-9/11 world (if not a post-9/11 mentality).

8. Finally, critical to Zavarzadeh’s metamodernism was the juxtaposition of “supposedly antithetical elements” in a central space: for instance, per Zavarzadeh, “the fictional and factual, critical and creative, art and life.” This notion of juxtapositive ambiguities residing in a central space between poles—which ambiguities force us out of any single received construction or deconstruction of reality (whether Modernist or postmodern)—is one we also see in Furlani’s ascriptions of metamodernism in the 1990s, or Alexandra Dumitrescu’s research into metamodernism in the aughts. More specifically, Zavarzadeh presaged the ambiguous “affects” of metamodern artists like Wes Anderson, Miranda July, or David Foster Wallace by noting that in today’s “fluid, heterogeneous society…subtle personality markers are not always easily recognizable.” The reason for this ambiguity of affect is the same as for the ambiguity of position Zavarzadeh associates with metamodernism: where the nature of reality is forever in doubt, the comforts of demographic association or moral authority, much like the comforts of readily readable affect, are mere Band-Aids atop the irreconcilable condition of a non-extant reality-fictuality interface.

Despite all of the above, Zavarzadeh, like most contemporary metamodernists, saw certain contrivances—particularly the personal metanarrative—as an ongoing necessity, even in the face of the impossibility of choosing individual affects or moral positions to the exclusion of all others. To repeat, one of the most important observations of “The Apocalyptic Fact” was Zavarzadeh’s contention that “each individual in our time is…a knight errant engaged in a bewildering quest of the self in an atomized society.” By noting this confluence of Modernism’s “bewildering quest of the self” and postmodernism’s “atomized society,” Zavarzadeh set the table for the metamodernism of today—still, as ever, an intervention in the post-postmodernism debate.

Importantly, however, Zavarzadeh’s reaction to all of these developments was not a cynical one. Zavarzadeh described metamodern literature, in 1975 and going forward, as a “radical response” to current crises that exhibited not only “volcanic energy” (suggesting a propulsive and creative rather than merely reactive postmodern mode) but also “by no means implies the death of the imagination. It means narrative energy is finding new channels.” As and when we hear of metamodernism as a “romantic response to crisis,” this valence of the metamodern echoes—rather than supersedes—what Zavarzadeh offered in his seminal essay on metamodernism. Today, as in 1975, our best response to crisis remains the radical, imaginative, volcanic narrative energy (call it “hope”) that Zavarzadeh witnessed exploring new channels in the seventies. This original energy continues to explore new channels today, now with the aid of the same “technetronic culture” Zavarzadeh envisioned with surprising clarity.


“Postmodernism created the appearance of collapsed distance by (for instance) combining High and popular culture, but its maintenance of dialectics to “absolve” the postmodern artist of this collapse distinguishes it—eternally—from the cultural paradigm that superseded it, metamodernism.”

The misreadings we’ve seen of Zavarzadeh in recent years are obviously not willful, even as some may seem, to certain proponents of Zavarzadean metamodernism, clearly—if benignly—negligent. For instance, Vermeulen and van den Akker propose that when Zavarzadeh mentioned black humorist Thomas Berger in 1975, this citation was intended to offer “black humor” as itself metamodern; this, as with other misreadings of “The Apocalyptic Fact,” is merely unfortunate. In fact, Zavarzadeh mentions Berger not as an example of a metamodern writer, but rather for a much more esoteric proposition: the fact that Berger was chosen by the New York Times to be its serious political critic in the 1970s was a sign that the Times had given up on “serious political criticism” (my phrase) as a possibility—not that it believed postmodern “black humor” to be an effective response to crisis. Indeed, in “The Apocalyptic Fact” Zavarzadeh specifically rejects conscious “parody” (like black comedy, a subgenre of satire) as metamodern, as parody—like black comedy—presumes a space of ironic detachment from which a critical analysis can or must be delivered. Instead, wrote Zavarzadeh, “mere quotation” of personal experience and/or empirical observation serves the same function in metamodern writing. Here another comparison with Andy Warhol’s visual and performance art is apt: if Warhol executed a postmodern critique of fast-food consumerism by parodying such consumption—for instance he once filmed himself, inside his art studio, eating a fast-food hamburger—a “metamodern Warhol” would have merely “quoted” the behavior he wished to comment upon. That is, he would have filmed himself sitting in a McDonald’s eating a hamburger. Just so, the late-postmodern poet Robert Fitterman is known for delivering lengthy sob-story soliloquies that seem earnest but maintain an ironic remove by virtue of the fact that Fitterman puts on a hat—a hat he never normally wears—before delivering his address. Again, in metamodernism the mere quotation of facts (whether they are personally derived or broadly environmental) is sufficient; therefore, a “metamodern Robert Fitterman” would deliver the very same soliloquy without donning a new hat first. The collapse of distances is endemic to metamodernism, and it’s precisely this sort of collapse that is forestalled by black comedy and ironic hat-donning. Postmodernism created the appearance of collapsed distance by (for instance) combining High and popular culture, but its maintenance of dialectics to “absolve” the postmodern artist of this collapse distinguishes it—eternally—from the cultural paradigm that superseded it, metamodernism.

So what artforms did Zavarzadeh explicitly associate with metamodernism? His 1975 essay gives us several examples, all of which are analogous to artforms we today consider metamodern. For instance, Zavarzadeh imagines an entirely fictitious story upon whose front cover the author has written simply, “What I Believe.” This paradox—an author claiming as a “true” personal metanarrative a story impossible for anyone else to believe—calls to mind the metamodern fiction of Tao Lin, whose simultaneously workaday and unreliable narratives are associated with “The New Sincerity.” How can Lin be considered to earnestly “believe in” the experiences detailed by his unreal fiction? Zavarzadeh well understood why. Just so, the reverse of this phenomenon, the “nonfiction novel,” is cited as metamodern by Zavarzadeh. Nonfiction novels manage to be received by their readers as fictitious even when they are entirely true. If forms of critical and creative writing that assume what Zavarzadeh called “moral and metaphysical certitude”—for instance, the postcolonialist critical tract or the black-comedy novel—are postmodern, Zavarzadeh identified as metamodern work that “denies…an integrated view of reality and the innocence of moral or metaphysical certitude.” No Literary Studies doctoral student studying postcolonial studies, or surveys of white supremacy in America, would say that such tracts demur from “an integrated view of reality” or “moral certitude”—it’s merely that they demur from conventional metanarratives in constructing their own (integrated, and, non-pejoratively speaking, highly moralistic) new ones. If augmented reality, virtual reality, and manipulations of reality like fan fiction, “cross-over” TV episodes, and wholesale re-boots are now considered metamodern, these align with the suspicion of reality and “impossibility of interpreting the actual via the fictive” described by Zavarzadeh in 1975. For instance, any hope that a given television program is a viably discrete interpretation of reality is lost when a wholly different reality (from another television program) intrudes violently via a “crossover episode.”

In view of all the foregoing, it must be said that to analogize Zavarzadeh’s “metamodernism” to Jameson’s “postmodernism,” as Vermeulen and van den Akker have done, is an impossibility. Likewise, we can see Zavarzadean metamodernism as both paving the way for and participating in the reorganization of philosophical terms and relations hypothesized by Dumitrescu, Furlani, and (not to put too fine a point on it) nearly every Literary Studies scholar who looked at “metamodernism” in the 1990s and 2000s—before Vermeulen and van den Akker had entered the conversation at all. The further exploration of Zavarzadean metamodernism, as well as its consequential expansion into new realms (such as the political and economic) now lies before us all as metamodernists—if only we will embrace metamodern discourse as global and heterogeneous, and clear our collective decks of unhelpful defensiveness, pretension, and vitriol.

The offensiveness and intent of art like Alison Gold’s “Chinese Food” and Cameron Carpenter’s “Birth of the International Touring Organ” are complicated by their uncertain status as earnest expression or parodic treatment of similar (vanity) projects. Metamodern art either eliminates or dislocates the “sincere grin” or “ironic wink” to the audience that lets us assess a work’s intent:


Situating Zavarzadean Metamodernism, #5: Reading Frederic Jameson Against Mas’ud Zavarzadeh

In the fifth of six ruminations on recent developments in metamodernism, I address the reading of Jameson (and Jamesonian postmodernism) that seems to animate the outlier metamodernism of Vermeulen and van den Akker. I use my (re-)reading of Jameson as a means of showing that Jameson’s timeline for the evolution of postmodernism is not, in fact, much at odds with Zavarzadeh’s until we reach the late 1990s—the same period of time at which Vermeulen and van den Akker begin to diverge in their thinking from Jameson. I address, too, how the Vermeulen/van den Akker misreading of Zavarzadeh is in fact a much graver and more consequential misreading of Jameson himself, as the former has in fact substantially complicated the latter’s model of postmodernism’s evolution rather than merely parroting it. The previous rumination in the series can be read here: #4: What Zavarzadean Metamodernism Is and Is Not

“If postmodernism would come to be aligned with “neoliberalism,” Zavarzadeh in 1975 explicitly aligned metamodernism with “post-liberalism,””

In 1983, Frederic Jameson, the quintessential postmodern scholar, began writing an article for The New Left Review. The article aimed to crystallize “postmodernism” as a discrete cultural paradigm which, in Jameson’s view, had become manifest by the beginning of the 1960s at the latest. By the time Jameson began conceptualizing the ideas that would inform this 1983 article—presumably, in the late 1970s and early 1980s—postmodernism had, per Jameson, reached its “late” stage. While his seminal work on postmodernism, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, would not be published until 1991, Jameson’s 1983 article formed the basis for this latter work and his observations of American culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s its conceptual backbone.

To Jameson, both in 1983 and 1991, postmodernism constituted above all else an erasure of the line between High culture and popular culture that Modernism had fetishized. This erasure consequently put aesthetic production in America (previously restricted to the sphere of High culture) squarely in the midst of the workaday capitalist machine. Pop Art, as typified by the visual art of Andy Warhol—think of the late artist’s paintings of Campbell’s soup cans—was an exemplar of postmodernism, in this Jamesonian view.

Of course postmodern art, under Jameson’s and every other reading of the postmodern, is also infused with poststructuralist literary theory; this means that whatever its situation in the midst of popular culture, postmodern art is always, necessarily, also a “deconstructive” critique of that culture. This idea of critiquing something one is in the very midst of would be a paradox—as how could Warhol be simultaneously deconstructing and critiquing consumer culture if this very culture was the primary vehicle for his artistic expression?—if not for the importance, in postmodernism, of “dialectics.” By virtue of dialectics, which means simply an abstract positioning of opposing ideas against one another, a literal artwork like a painting can simultaneously be an abstract gesture quite apart from the artwork itself. In other words, while Warhol’s physical media often suggested he was wallowing in contemporary capitalism, the animating principles of his conceptual art suggested, more significantly, a dialectical (and thus oppositional) relationship with consumer culture. In this way Warhol could have his cake and eat it, too. (Of course, this paradox of a single artist exhibiting different physical and abstract relationships to consumer culture also enabled many misreadings of Warhol’s work over the years; to those not steeped in postmodern, e.g. neo-Marxist, dialectics, it could easily have seemed as though Warhol was merely uncritically celebrating capitalism’s “popular” culture.)

It’s for the above reason—this disconnect between physical product and conceptual motive—that postmodernism is often associated with “irony.” Understanding how artists and thinkers achieve ironic detachment from discrete phenomena goes a long way toward understanding postmodernists like Warhol. If we think of Warhol as ironically commenting on consumer culture “from within,” we can see that postmodern subgenres like “Pop Art” constituted not so much the actual embrace of consumer culture by postmodernists but rather an ironic embrace of it to entrench a dialectic with (for instance) Warhol on one end and the excesses of capitalism on the other. So when Jameson wrote in 1991 that postmodernism had erased the line between High culture and popular culture he meant, in fact, that it had both erased it and, simultaneously, re-drawn it in permanent marker.

Not so many years before Jameson began writing his crystallization of postmodernism—about six years, i.e. an eye-blink in the history of critical theory—Zavarzadeh was in Oregon attempting to determine whether a new cultural paradigm would dominate the “technetronic culture” he saw on America’s horizon. Writing in 1975, Zavarzadeh both looked back upon the literature of the 1950s and 1960s and considered how the events of the early 1970s seemed to propose the early stages of a larger “historical…and cultural phase” that would be distinct from what had preceded it. What Zavarzadeh saw, and what Jameson, several years later, would not, was that the different strains of culture and critical thought that had followed in the wake of “modernism” could not, in fact, be grouped under the single heading of “postmodernism.”

While Jameson has routinely acknowledged postmodernism and the artifacts of postmodernism as heterogeneous, he has also consistently insisted on the usefulness of “postmodernism” as a collectivizing term. Zavarzadeh never did, and still does not, share this confidence. And so it was that when Zavarzadeh wrote “The Apocalyptic Fact and the Eclipse of Fiction in Recent American Prose Narratives” in 1975, he made a decision Jameson might have done well to make when he began writing his magnum opus on postmodernism six years later: he divided into multiple discrete tendencies the several cultural logics that had succeeded (i.e. were “post-”) Modernism.

For Zavarzadeh in “The Apocalyptic Fact,” the quintessential literary Modernists were James Joyce (artistically active from approximately 1915 to 1940), Virginia Woolf (1915-1945), and Faulkner (1925-1960, though he’d published nearly all his major work by the time of America’s entry into World War II, making his period of “Modernist” literary activity almost identical to Joyce’s and Woolf’s). Zavarzadeh designated as exemplars of the literary “anti-Modernist” camp—those whose literary poetics “reacted against” the Modernists—a trio of authors from the “1950s”: Kingsley Amis, John Wain, and C.P. Snow. “1950s” was, here, an evident shorthand for Zavarzadeh, as in fact all three authors enjoyed their heyday between the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, i.e. around the time Jameson considered postmodernism to have crystallized. In describing these latter authors as having “reacted against” the Modernists, Zavarzadeh seemed to echo the language Jameson would later use in describing what we now think of as “postmodernism.” Indeed, the very first page of Jameson’s 1991 book typified postmodernism as an “implacable critique” of Modernism (cf. Zavarzadeh’s “react[ing] against”). We see, then, in Zavarzadeh this timeline for the Modern and postmodern paradigms:

  • 1915-1945 (approximate): Modernism.
  • 1950-1967 (approximate): Anti-Modernism.
  • 1968-1975 (approximate): Continued ubiquity of anti-Modernism and patches of proto-“metamodernism” (the latter identified in his 1975 essay “The Apocalyptic Fact”).
  • 1976-thereafter (speculative): Further development of metamodernism as a full-blown “historical and cultural phase.”

Meanwhile, Jameson’s timeline looks like this (due in part to his redefinition of the decades-long, nineteenth-century Victorian era as “Modernist,” which Zavarzadeh would likely have demurred from, I imagine, only by terming it “proto-Modernist”):

  • 1850-1950 (approximate): Modernism.
  • 1950-1969 (approximate): Postmodernism and crystallization of postmodernism.
  • 1970-1980 (approximate): Late postmodernism.

And for comparison, here’s the twentieth century in literature as imagined by (universally acknowledged) seminal metamodern novelist David Foster Wallace (per his interviews):

  • 1915-1950 (approximate): Modernism.
  • 1950-1967 (approximate): Postmodernism.
  • 1968-1975 (approximate): Postmodernism and patches of proto-“metamodernism” (though Wallace did not use the latter term, he identified the same authors as belonging to this latter trend as did Zavarzadeh).
  • 1976-1995: Dominance of late (in his view boring and exhausting/self-exhausted) postmodernism because no one had yet followed up on the work done by the proto-metamodernists. In
  • 1985, he began the metamodern novel Infinite Jest to remedy this.

As is now widely known, Zavarzadeh also coined, in 1975, two new categories for literary output: “metamodernism” and “paramodernism.” In a nod to many Modernist scholars’ insistence that, well into the 1950s and 1960s, supposedly “postmodern” authors were in fact merely perpetuating subtle variations of the Modernist ethic, Zavarzadeh termed as “paramodernist” a slew of hard-to-categorize authors like Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov. Beckett’s “black comedy” aligns with our present understanding of postmodernist writing, though at the time he was receiving critical acclaim he was often referred to as one of the “last modernists”; Zavarzadeh’s taxonomic term “paramodernism” thus rescued Beckett (and others similarly situated, like Nabokov) from the limbo of being only debatably Modernist or postmodernist.

The most abidingly important term coined by Zavarzadeh in 1975 was, of course, “metamodernism,” though in his circumscription of its particulars we find evidence of a cultural paradigm that, as of 1975, only a handful of authors could yet claim to have explored. (This is one reason that Zavarzadeh’s analysis as much looked forward to the authors an emerging “technetronic culture” might produce as looking around in the mid-1970s to see who was already producing “metamodernist” writing.)

If postmodernism would come to be aligned with “neoliberalism,” Zavarzadeh in 1975 explicitly aligned metamodernism with “post-liberalism,” which distinction regrettably has led to some confusion (particularly for Vermeulen and van den Akker) regarding which 1970s authors Zavarzadeh saw as early metamodernists—and why. For instance, while Zavarzadeh did identify certain “metafictional” authors, like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, as metamodernists, the specific quality of their late 1960s/early 1970s work that Zavarzadeh associated with metamodernism was “a baroque over-interpretation of the ‘human condition.’” While any such baroque gesture naturally contains an element of parody, Zavarzadeh was clear that any parodic element in such works was not a parody of reality itself, but rather an implicit parody of the writing practices of other (whether Modernist or “anti-Modernist”) authors. This “inside baseball” brand of parody was not, in Zavarzadeh’s view, an attempt to set forth an alternative, e.g. neo-liberal, view of or key to reality (or, for that matter, fiction-as-genre) but rather to “demonstrate the confusing multiplicity of reality and thus the naiveté involved in attempting to reach a single synthesis of reality”—again, whether that synthesis was to be, say, Modernist-interpretive or postmodernist-Marxist (or in some other way neo-liberal). Note the use here of the word “demonstrate”—as in “perform without commentary”—whereas we find in Vermeulen and van den Akker’s analysis of Zavarzadeh a claim that the latter favored “ruminations” on (for instance) “the confusing multiplicity of reality…”

The metafiction of the late 1960s and early 1970s of which Zavarzadeh was writing offered “nothing between the lines,” to use Zavarzadeh’s own words, and in this respect blithely assigning to it the adjective “parodic”—as Vermeulen and van den Akker have done—is a misunderstanding of both its form and its function. It was, instead, a reaction to “anti-modern” (or, as we think of it now, “postmodern”) neo-liberalism, which is precisely why, for Zavarzadeh, it was “post-” and not “neo-” liberal. (Confusing, I know, but “postmodern neoliberalism” is not “metamodern postliberalism,” howsoever the prefixes may confuse us.)

David Foster Wallace, hailed by Vermeulen and van den Akker’s research project as a metamodern novelist, not only produced fiction answering in every way to Zavarzadeh’s description of metamodernist fiction—“a baroque over-interpretation of the human condition…demonstrating the confusing multiplicity of reality”—but also explicitly linked his own work to the same early metamodernists Zavarzadeh had discussed in 1975, particularly Pynchon (an author often mentioned by Wallace by name).

In a 1996 interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace tellingly said the following:

“The way I am as a writer comes very much out of what I want as a reader and what got me off when I was reading [in the mid-1980s], and a lot of it has to do with, “Good Lord, I’m really stretching myself, I’m really having to think, and process, and feel in ways I don’t normally feel….ten years ago, [in the mid-1980s], I was reading a lot more avant-garde stuff, and I thought it was very cool. One of my complaints right now [in the mid-1990s] is that, because I think commercial entertainment has conditioned readers to want more easy fun, I think avant-garde and art fiction have relinquished the field. Basically I don’t read much contemporary avant-garde stuff because it’s hellaciously un-fun. [By comparison] the stuff I was reading ten years ago was avant-garde stuff from like the 60s and early 70s which, as far as I can see, was the heyday of contemporary avant-garde stuff. But these days a lot of it is very academic and cloistered and basically written for critics and college teachers and PhD students and I feel a lot more strongly about that [in terms of disapproving of it] than I do TV.”

Interestingly, scholars now find in Wallace’s Infinite Jest not only the same “baroque over-interpretation of the human condition” Zavarzadeh saw in the late 1960s and early 1970s (e.g., in Wallace, ornate over-descriptions of twelve-step recovery philosophies) but also the tendencies of the “nonfiction novel” that Zavarzadeh likewise associated with “metamodern” literature. For instance, Wallace’s lengthy lists of drugs and their effects, secondary-school pedagogies and their peculiarities, and mental and physical conditions exhibited by real people (and in many cases experienced in real life by Wallace himself) “enact[ ] the zero degree of interpretation of the ‘human condition’…by means of neutral registration of the fantastic actualities” spoken of by Zavarzadeh in 1975. Just so—and asking for a moment for the reader’s indulgence—when I wrote and published a lengthy metamodern poem entitled “White Privilege” which did no more than list 600+ surprising but true facts about my life as a non-Anglo (Jewish) Caucasian, the primary reaction from readers was that what they had just read could not possibly be true. What most metamodernists understand, including Zavarzadeh and Wallace, is that one can achieve metamodern effects in literature equally through the baroque and the neutral, in part because the two are—in Zavarzadean metamodernism—one and the same.

In other words, Vermeulen and van den Akker have gravely misread Zavarzadeh’s approach to parody. Whereas in their recent essay the two cultural theorists charge Zavarzadeh with terming “parody” metamodern, in fact the scholar was quite clear in 1975 that metamodern fiction “acknowledges…an extreme situation where ‘parody’ and ‘analysis’ become equally impossible…” Moreover, if we replace “parody” and “analysis” here with the phrases “conventional poststructuralist deconstruction” and “conventional Modernist rumination and interpretation” we understand precisely how Zavarzadeh saw metamodern literature as a negotiation of and between Modernism and postmodernism. Even the quality of “sincerity” that contemporary metamodernists now align with metamodern literature was registered by Zavarzadeh via his 1975 claim that the “nonfiction novel” found in metamodernism was an “authentic reaction” to contemporary living—“authenticity” being a byword of contemporary discussions of “sincerity.” (Meanwhile, Zavarzadeh excluded from metamodern operations any vestiges of the “judgmental voice” that sometimes seeps into conventional metafiction.)

The sixth and last entry in the series can be read here: #6 Transcendence of the Dialectical in Zavarzadean Metamodernism

In Zavarzadean metamodernism, the unreality of “real things” (and vice versa) is a creative force. Fanciful but strategic North Korean propaganda redefines terms like creativity and reality, as does the work of Karl Faberge, who unites conventional painting and virtual reality:

Situating Zavarzadean Metamodernism, #4: What Zavarzadean Metamodernism Is and Is Not

In the fourth of six ruminations on recent developments in metamodernism, I forcefully rebut misperceptions of Zavarzadean metamodernism and attempt to remedy these misperceptions by close-reading Zavarzadeh’s seminal text. This reading emphasizes how closely interconnected Zavarzadean metamodernism is to other writings on metamodernism that have appeared through the years. The previous rumination in the series can be read here: #3: Developing a Guiding Metaphor for the Metamodern

“…the “snap-back” quality of metamodernism described by Vermeulen and van den Akker is merely a re-entrenchment of postmodern philosophy by way of confirming that opposing positions are in fact irreconcilable.”

It must now be stated rather baldly that Vermeulen and van den Akker’s circumscription of Mas’ud Zavarzadeh’s metamodernism bears no obvious relation to either the views of the man or the manner in which he articulated those views in “The Apocalyptic Fact” in 1975.

For instance, Zavarzadeh’s clearest and most oft-repeated circumscription of his own reading of metamodernism is that the term denotes creative and cultural phenomena that contain “zero degree of interpretation”; yet in dismissing Zavarzadeh as an only slightly idiosyncratic postmodernist, Vermeulen and van den Akker attribute to him a diametrically opposite usage of the “meta-” prefix: they claim, that is, that his metamodernism aims for “a rumination upon” contemporary culture in the manner of postmodernism. The text you’re reading right now—a six-part, blog post-like essay—is a reasonable exemplar of rumination; texts that aim to achieve “zero degree of interpretation” are manifestly not.

How Vermeulen and van den Akker read “zero degree of interpretation” as an invitation for “rumination” we cannot say, nor do we actually find in Zavarzadeh the assignation of metamodern intent to “black humour and parody” that Vermeulen and van den Akker claim to have uncovered. Both black humor and parody—discussed in more detail below—constitute precisely the sort of ironic, satiric rumination upon present affairs that Zavarzadeh explicitly, repeatedly, and forcefully distinguished from anything to do with the metamodern. Just so, though Vermeulen and van den Akker locate a postmodern bent in Zavarzadeh’s belief that contemporary culture precludes a single interpretation of reality, in fact Zavarzadeh’s metamodernism has nothing at all to do with (as Vermeulen and van den Akker imply) “a discrete number of competing interpretations of reality,” and everything to do with the absence of reality and the impossibility of unifying interpretation(s) acting as co-extant, generative cultural activators. This is an entirely different premise. I believe that part of the problem faced by both Zavarzadeh and the Vermeulen/van den Akker partnership is that in order to discuss metamodernism one must first internalize certain basic principles of postmodernism—the former being a transcendence rather than a rejection of the latter. The issue with this is that Vermeulen and van den Akker seem to treat as a terminal logic even Zavarzadeh’s barest acknowledgment of postmodern thought as influential to metamodernism’s circumscription. This, despite the fact that the same sort of necessary acknowledgment is present throughout the research of Vermeulen and van den Akker themselves.

Even more confusing, Vermeulen and van den Akker find in the metamodern philosophy described by Andre Furlani in the 1990s “another modernism [other than postmodernism]”—something they do not see in the presumptively postmodern Zavarzadeh—by virtue of the fact that Furlani, presumably unlike Zavarzadeh, locates in metamodernism “contrasts absorbed into harmony.” Yet those who have read Zavarzadeh at length know that the most critical passage in the seminal text of Zavarzadean metamodernism, indeed the one that best summarizes the whole of the paradigm, is this one:

“The fusion of fact and fiction blurs the dichotomy between ‘life’ and ‘art’ and indeed such a sharp division between the two does not exist in the emerging aesthetics which I shall, for lack of a better term, call ‘Metamodernist.’ [Metamodernism in literature]…combines such allegedly antithetical elements as the ‘fictional’ and the ‘factual,’ ‘critical’ and the ‘creative,’ ‘art’ and ‘life.’”

One wonders why Furlani’s “contrasts absorbed into harmony” heralds a “new modernism” for Vermeulen and van den Akker, while Zavarzadeh’s “fusion of…allegedly antithetical elements” does not. Just so, Vermeulen and van den Akker locate in Furlani the ambition of “transcending postmodern disorder,” yet somehow this cannot be equated to Zavarzadeh’s understanding of metamodern reality as “non-selective” but “inclusive.” Much like Furlani’s “transcendence of postmodern disorder,” Zavarzadeh’s metamodernism proposes a sweeping away of chaos-inducing designations like “significant” and “absurd” in favor of a harmonized “empirical fiction” that simply “is.” This sanguine acceptance of (in Zavarzadeh’s view) a now-nonextant reality/fiction interface is, as in Furlani, effectively a transcendence of postmodern disorder.

Alexandra Dumitrescu’s mid-aughts writings, too, dovetail with the work of Zavarzadeh and Furlani rather than that of Vermeulen and van den Akker. For instance, in conceding that Dumitrescu is invested in a new modernism—just not the one they are—Vermeulen and van den Akker note that Dumitrescu’s “metamodernism” is typified by “holism, connectionism and integration.” These three principles are, of course, endemic to the research of both Zavarzadeh and Furlani as well as Dumitrescu. Meanwhile, in direct contradiction of the past writings of Zavarzadeh, Furlani, Dumitrescu, and (in full confession) myself as well, Vermeulen and van den Akker argue that “harmony is not the dominant sensibility of present culture…[but] irreconcilability,” a phrasing that could be the mantra of every contemporary postmodernist both inside the academy and without. The one addition made to this perspective by Vermeulen and van den Akker—not coincidentally, an addition none of the foregoing metamodern scholars would disagree with—is that in contemporary culture individuals nevertheless feel a “need to occupy [multiple positions] at once.” This is the same reason why Zavarzadeh saw, in the nonfiction novel, an attempt to conjoin the attitudes of the fabular and the mimetic; this is why, in Dumitrescu’s now iconic metaphor of metamodernism as a boat being rebuilt and repaired as it sails, the metamodern sailor wants both a) to sail in the boat she presently has, but also b) to sail in a very different boat that’s a rebuilt and repaired version of the current one. (Separately, we might also note that this idea of “occupying multiple positions at once” is, metaphysically, a direct contradiction of Vermeulen and van den Akker’s oscillatory and dialectical “snap-back” metaphor. “Oscillation” is not simultaneous occupation—it wasn’t in Plato’s time, it isn’t today.)


While it is true that we find more conspicuous evidence of individuals’ “tragic desire” to simultaneously occupy disparate positions in the writings of Vermeulen, van den Akker, Furlani, and Dumitrescu than we do in Zavarzadeh, this is in part because of readers’ unfamiliarity with the metamodern literary genre at the very heart of Zavarzadean metamodernism: the nonfiction novel. The nonfiction novel is, to be clear, a sincere autobiographical text which the author knows can and will be read as fiction (and/or simply an irony-laden monologue) by its audience. Yet the author of the nonfiction novel inescapably bears a “tragic desire” to tell the story of her life while acknowledging that the conditions no longer exist for her history to be read as resolutely empirical. Indeed, Zavarzadeh’s most notable citation of the sort of “tragic desire” Vermeulen and van den Akker identify as metamodern is actually the second most oft-quoted sentence from “The Apocalyptic Fact”: Zavarzadeh’s observation that “each individual in our time is…a knight errant engaged in a bewildering quest of the self in an atomized society.” What better statement of “tragic desire” could there be than this one? What better example of the need to occupy two positions at once than to be simultaneously a) a Romantic quester, and b) a clear-eyed resident of an atomized society, i.e. one in which quest-like truthseeking is evidently futile?

Vermeulen and van den Akker have now, five years after their first published article on metamodernism, settled on metamodernism as “an attitude dependent…on the overall state of the organism, its level of energy, the level of resources at its disposal for coping with environmental challenges, and the degree of tension it finds itself in as a result of the ratio of its resources to its challenges…” This reference to organic energy appears to be an implicit citation of the scholarly concept of “entropy,” which, too, was critical to Zavarzadeh’s 1975 essay “The Apocalyptic Fact.” There, Zavarzadeh posited that metamodernism’s response to contemporary crises features both a) “local viewpoints…imposed on narratives” (with these “local viewpoints” analogically similar to Vermeulen/van den Akker’s stranded swimmer, who must develop a “local” strategy in the face of a non-selective pantheon of options), and b) “entropy,” which Zavarzadeh defines as synonymous with what we now understand to be “personal metanarratives.” (Zavarzadeh’s specific phrasing, in describing entropy, is “a shaping factor of contemporary realities…[that is not] a controlling metaphor”). One is hard-pressed to see between these two perspectives the gulf of distinction Vermeulen and van den Akker posit as being so vast that their metamodernism is a difference not just of degree but of kind to Zavarzadeh’s (in their view) oddball postmodernism.


As we have seen, the distinctions drawn by Vermeulen and van den Akker between their own views and those of others who have used the term metamodernism do not withstand much scrutiny, even as the ways in which they distinguish their approach to the topic from those of others suggests that what is being described by them is in fact not a “paradigm” in the fashion of modernism or postmodernism at all. This is all to reiterate that metamodernism has, since 1975, consistently been defined by theorists on multiple continents as constituting a) a mediation between modernism and the direct reactions against it (whether we call these reactions “postmodern” or “anti-modern”) as well as b) an attempt to generatively juxtapose opposing poles in a central space. This juxtaposition is then seen—by Zavarzadeh; by Furlani; by Dumitrescu; and, for what it’s worth, by myself—as actuating or at least making conceivable the future transcendence of entrenched dialectics, such as, for instance, those which were found (albeit in very different forms) in both Modernist and postmodernist philosophy. In this view, the “snap-back” quality of metamodernism described by Vermeulen and van den Akker is merely a re-entrenchment of postmodern philosophy by way of confirming that opposing positions are in fact irreconcilable.

The next entry in the series can be read here: #5: Reading Frederic Jameson Against Mas’ud Zavarzadeh

Metamodern mash-ups and remixes like Robot Chicken’s “Star Wars” and Bad Lip Reading’s “Medieval Land Fun-Time World” create idiosyncratic narratives out of existing public ones—without destroying their original sources:

Situating Zavarzadean Metamodernism, #3: Developing a Guiding Metaphor for the Metamodern

In the third of six ruminations on recent developments in metamodernism, I address more directly a recent essay on the topic by cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker—an essay that both points toward a possible resolution with Zavarzadean metamodernism, offers a way forward for metamodern discourse, and posits a new trope for the scholarly description of metamodern operations. This new trope highlights the ways in which metamodernists always run the risk of merely re-entrenching postmodern principles—perhaps the worst thing a metamodernist can do. The previous rumination in the series can be read here: #2: Metamodernism Across the Disciplines

“…this idea of being constantly pulled between poles—regardless of the inclusion that, too, one prefers one pole more than another—is “classic” postmodernism.”

In their most recent essay on metamodernism, Vermeulen and van den Akker analogize metamodernism to a man or woman who has been thrown overboard roughly equidistant from a large number of disparate and discrete islands. These islands in many instances represent opposing forces like irony and sincerity, cynicism and optimism, or knowingness and naiveté. In this view, the metamodernist’s inclination is to swim toward one island on the basis of it being (seen as) preferable to the others, even as the swimmer acknowledges the value of the islands not selected for approach. Vermeulen and van den Akker add to this metaphor for metamodern operations the idea that as the swimmer closes in on the preferred island, or perhaps at the very moment that that island has been reached, he or she is “snapped back” toward another island or islands by an unseen force—one whose very presence suggests, implicitly, the impossibility of finally choosing one island over another. (It should be noted that the metamodern swimmer of Vermeulen and van den Akker’s imagination is nearly always swimming, in the first instance, toward a neoromantic pole: e.g., sincerity, optimism, or naiveté.)

On the one hand, this idea of being constantly pulled between poles—regardless of the inclusion that, too, one prefers one pole more than another—is “classic” postmodernism. If we look within Literary Studies, for instance, we find in nearly every poststructuralist specialization evidence of a series of dialectics with a “preferred” pole. Whether it’s neo-Marxism, postcolonialism, studies of white supremacy or misogyny, or ecopoetics, a dialectic or series of dialectics is present as well as a pole toward which the postmodern scholar is themselves naturally drawn. Being drawn toward, say, the advance of the proletariat (or its contemporary equivalent) in Marxism does not mean that one can escape confronting—and indeed being in part defined by—capitalist means of production. So this “snap-back” motion so relied upon by Vermeulen and van den Akker is not only largely missing in the discrete metamodern phenomena they describe but also fails to justify their ongoing claim of “paradigm shift.”

In another sense, however, the “snap-back” metaphor is, in Literary Studies terms, a perfect circumscription of the psychic positioning and well-developed metanarrative operative in the literary work of High Modernists such as Ezra Pound and James Joyce. For instance, both Pound and James Joyce overlaid atop their personal metanarratives a “mythic” method of composition that sought to resolve personal experience with an abiding yearning for universal truth. As Pound found in his Cantos, however, and later on in his radio broadcasts for the fascists of the Axis, when one seeks repeatedly to swim toward one’s particularly derived island of truth, one is constantly snapped back to the feeling—whether it is a just feeling or not is another matter—that the many different worldviews that make up common culture are finally irreconcilable. As Pound once put it in one of his later poems, he ultimately found that he could not make “cohere” his attempts at using the mythic method of composition to create a totality—at least not one that also embraced his personal metanarrative. This is why, for the final years of his life, Pound stopped speaking altogether: he had struggled to land on his preferred island so many times that continuing to proclaim himself or his values in any fashion seemed futile. And yet, for all his High Modern investigations into the mythic, Pound was never so obtuse as to be incapable of seeing the value (if, in his view, the much lesser value) of other approaches or “islands” of truth; in this respect one struggles to distinguish between Poundian subjectivity and metamodernism as Vermeulen and van den Akker would have it. Meanwhile, one struggles to find any overlap at all between Zavarzadean metamodernism and either Pound’s Modernism or Jameson’s postmodernism—on which observation there is much more discussion hereafter.

There do remain, however, some linkages between Zavarzadean and Vermeulen/van den Akker’s metamodernism. For instance, for Vermeulen and van den Akker the question of “selection” is central to metamodernism. The latter duo’s abandoned swimmer selects a given island pursuant to a private metaphysics, but is unable to stay on—or perhaps even reach—the island he has designated as his best, if not the only possible, hope of self-promulgation. In Zavarzadean metamodernism, selection plays an equally critical role and, it seems, an almost identical one. In his essay “The Apocalyptic Fact,” for instance, Zavarzadeh distinguishes “selection based on the private metaphysics of the [individual]” from the operation of metamodern reality, which is “non-selective” to the extent that, as is the case in Vermeulen and van den Akker’s conception of metamodernism, it neither entirely permits nor entirely precludes a private metaphysics. In other words, for both Zavarzadeh and Vermeulen/van den Akker the swimmer is empowered to select an island but not empowered to find there a permanent controlling metaphor and haven. Other islands always exert their influence on the swimmer, too.

If the Vermeulen/van den Akker swimmer finds—to maintain the pair’s somewhat confusing metaphor—that he or she is “rubber-banded” (as it were) away from a chosen island and toward another or others, the difference in Zavarzadeh is merely that the swimmer has arrived at his or her chosen island only to find that it offers no clearer rescue or respite than the others. Indeed, per Zavarzadeh the new island is difficult to distinguish at all except through the deployment of a highly personalized metanarrative. The engine behind the “snap-back” force identified by Vermeulen and van den Akker is the irreconcilability of other (including opposing) options with the one that the swimmer has selected; for Zavarzadeh, this irreconcilability is present but is simply the result of a map-wide conceptual indistinguishability.

The idea that a totalizing equivalence of the sort envisioned by Zavarzadeh is not just culturally operative but dominant would be horrifying to any Literary Studies scholar now researching postmodern specializations like postcolonialism, third- and subsequent-wave feminism, or ecopoetics. Meanwhile, Vermeulen and van den Akker’s notion of the inescapability of opposing positions—if indeed we think of it as an “inescapability” rather than merely an “influence”—would be no less horrifying. Neither perspective is, in this respect, discernibly postmodern. In short, while indistinguishability and irreconcilability are by no means co-equal, if they result in an identical inescapability as between opposing poles—as they seem to do in both Zavarzadean and Vermeulen/van den Akker’s philosophy—the dramatic distinctions the latter wish to draw as between themselves and the former become unsupportable.

The next entry in the series can be read here: #4: What Zavarzadean Metamodernism Is and Is Not

Metamodern personalities like Donald Trump and Rachel Dolezal call into question, in very different ways, what it means to be earnest in environments that are “always-already” cynical:

Situating Zavarzadean Metamodernism, #2: Metamodernism Across the Disciplines

In the second of six ruminations on recent developments in metamodernism, I distinguish between different disciplinary approaches to metamodernism and briefly introduce an approach endemic to Literary Studies—that of American professor Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, the man who coined the term “metamodernism” in 1975. In contrasting metamodernism to previous cultural paradigms, I insist that the failure to account metamodernism a “movement” is at the heart of an error that now threatens ongoing metamodern research. The previous rumination in the series can be read here: #1: What Is Metamodernism?

“Metamodernism is, like Modernism and postmodernism, a cultural paradigm. This means that, like Modernism and postmodernism, it can be construed as a movement, a philosophy, a system of logic, a structure of feeling, and a cultural dominant that both is reflected in existing cultural activities and can be channeled into new creative endeavors.”

Much of the disconnect between Vermeulen and van den Akker and their peers in metamodern scholarship may be attributable to disciplinary pathologies. That is, Vermeulen and van den Akker, as cultural theorists, are looking at temporally elongated phenomena which can in fact exhibit discernible signs of “metaxic” oscillation. For instance, one might find a sort of oscillation in the near-simultaneous rise of the far-right Tea Party and far-left Occupy movements in America in the 2010s. The two seemed part of a push-pull dynamic that a) for a time had all America in its grip, and b) was slow enough in its movements to qualify as an “oscillation,” albeit rapid enough to signal something more contemporary than, say, the push-pull of the Cold War.

Of course, it’s not so clear of what utility the phrase “metamodernism” is if it portends merely that dialectical tensions evident in the era of postmodernism (which was also, not so coincidentally, the Cold War era) are now cycling more rapidly than before. This would be no different, and no more helpful, than observing that the dialectical struggles of Modernism were more frenetic in the years immediately following World War II than they had been in the 1850s—the decade no less an authority on “modernisms” than Frederic Jameson has declared the beginning of the Modern era. So is metamodernism merely rapid(ish)-cycle postmodernism, as Vermeulen and van den Akker seem to posit?

It’s perhaps no surprise that in recent Continental fora, Vermeulen and van den Akker have been accused, cordially and not unfairly, of offering their readers either a paramodernistic extension of modernism (inasmuch as they imply that metamodernism is a repeated thrust toward the poles of sincerity, optimism, naiveté, neo-Romanticism, and the like) or a warmed-over postmodernism (inasmuch as they imply that the push-pull dialectic inherent to their iteration of “metamodernism” suggests that it is always-already impossible to reach escape velocity from postmodernism’s irony, cynicism, knowingness, and detachment). More broadly, some have seen in Vermeulen/van den Akker’s “metamodernism” merely the same cultural steady-state—not a balance, but a hard-fought stand-still—that has always been with us. After all, such online critics opine, every ironic moment is of course infused with some sincerity, and vice versa; every moment of collective cynicism leaves more than enough daylight for a modicum of cynicism’s opposite. They wonder aloud how any of this amounts to a new cultural paradigm.

The debate over how to read metamodernism is a much more complicated one for Literary Studies scholars like Alexandra Dumitrescu, David James, Urmila Seshagiri, and myself, or even for those, like me, whose case study-oriented cultural criticism focuses first and foremost on individual artifacts of contemporary culture rather than years-long cultural trends. To the extent Vermeulen and van den Akker’s metamodernism is focused on what they perceive as an “oscillation” between opposing poles, we must note how hard it is to find even a whisper of conspicuous “oscillation” in the individual artworks Vermeulen and van den Akker have identified as metamodern. What we find, instead, are sometimes reflexive and sometimes non-reflexive juxtapositions of opposing poles—“juxtaposition” being, not coincidentally, the concept most active in metamodernism in the view of nearly every metamodernist of my acquaintance other than Vermeulen, van den Akker, and the several editors of their research project (or those who submit essays to the project in the hope of synthesizing its central claims).

Committed metamodernists are also likely to be confused by the recent announcement, by one of the editors of Notes on Metamodernism, that “everyone today is a metamodernist unless they’re out of step.” On the one hand, Vermeulen and van den Akker seemed—at least prior to their most recent essay on the topic—to have doubled down on a metaphor (oscillation, derived from Plato’s oscillatory “metaxy”) that ill-describes individual metamodern artifacts, while on the other hand those associated with their research now risk defining metamodernism out of any consequential existence whatsoever. Indeed, if everyone and everything is ever and always metamodern, then nothing and no one ever discretely is, surely. This may explain, too, why Vermeulen and van den Akker have been stuck describing their view of metamodernism in a fashion modernists term “Modernist” and postmodernists “postmodern.”


As a Literary Studies scholar myself, I suppose it’s not surprising that my own views on metamodernism stem from the writing of a fellow Literary Studies scholar who a) was the first ever to discuss the term in academic literature, and b) applied his analysis of the term first and foremost to individual authors and artworks—as Literary Studies scholars are wont to do. I therefore consider myself a “Zavarzadean metamodernist,” after the American scholar, Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, who coined the term “metamodernism” in his 1975 essay “The Apocalyptic Fact and the Eclipse of Fiction in Recent American Prose Narratives.” I also find myself in much agreement with the Literary Studies analysis of metamodernism offered in the 2000s by Alexandra Dumitrescu, which in my view is sympathetic with—if not directly derived from—that of Zavarzadeh. The same could be said of Andre Furlani, another Literary Studies scholar whose 1990s research into metamodernism can be readily networked with my own, Zavarzadeh’s, and Dumitrescu’s. So if the Vermeulen/van den Akker reading of the term is increasingly an outlier that is hard to cogently attach to specific artworks in the present, it may be, again, that Vermeulen and van den Akker are less interested in discussing artworks than cultural epochs. While I might argue that Literary Studies scholars researching metamodernism are every bit as invested as Vermeulen and van den Akker are with reading metamodernism as a cultural paradigm, I do think our manner of proceeding is more inductive than the deductive approach native to cultural studies. That is, the literary scholar is more apt to look at a single artwork and ask “How is this new?” and “What does this herald?”, while the cultural theorist (more like a Comp Lit scholar) looks at an enduring volume of phenomena and asks, “What happened?” and “How are all these related?” I find Cultural Studies not quite as facile when it comes to the synthesis of individual artworks, but I also concede that’s likely a disciplinary bias.


To understand some of the current disputes between and among metamodernists it is useful to review some basic features of their two paradigmatic predecessors, Modernism and postmodernism. To begin with, Modernism and postmodernism are both correctly regarded—as they are described in Wikipedia and everywhere else—as “twentieth century movements.” Both Modernism and postmodernism were in their day widely instrumentalized as artistic programs by artists of every background, genre, and aesthetic inclination. Metamodernism is, like Modernism and postmodernism, a cultural paradigm. This means that, like Modernism and postmodernism, it can be construed as a movement, a philosophy, a system of logic, a structure of feeling, and a cultural dominant that both is reflected in existing cultural activities and can be channeled (due to it being a movement, philosophy, system of logic, and structure of feeling operative in individual creators as well as cultures and subcultures) into new creative endeavors. Modernism and postmodernism, like metamodernism, also have necessarily political dimensions that are played out in spheres in which the terms Modernism, postmodernism, and metamodernism are not themselves used in any conspicuous way. What Frederic Jameson wrote of postmodernism may also be true, then, of metamodernism: “Every position on postmodernism in culture—whether apologia or stigmatization—is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance…” This is the case even as/when the politics attendant upon metamodern structures are still being worked through by scholars of metamodernism.

Recently, Vermeulen and van den Akker suggested that metamodernism, unlike Modernism and postmodernism, is neither a movement nor in itself especially or uniquely ripe for programmatic treatment. Moreover, though as recently as 2010 the two men had described metamodernism as a “system of logic” as well as a structure of feeling, they now decry the former assignation and refer to metamodernism as simply a “structure of feeling.” In addition to these recent clarifications of their now widely read 2010 article on metamodernism, the two have now also addressed (or perhaps re-addressed) the usage of the term metamodernism by others. Though they acknowledge that their own employment of the term is not one of the first (or even an early) usage, they do insist, at least, that it is largely unrelated to all others of note since 1975. Some of these other usages they decry as being mere re-orientations of postmodern thought, others as possibly new modernisms that nevertheless bear no significant association to the term “metamodernism” as they discuss it.

The problem with the above analysis—indeed the larger problem with the Vermeulen/van den Akker reading of metamodernism—is that for all its reference to its own historicity (and even to specific political and ecological precursors and enablers), it is finally ahistorical. The published uses of the term by Mas’ud Zavarzadeh in the 1970s, by Moyo Okediji, Andre Furlani, and more than a dozen others in the 1990s and early 2000s, and by Alexandra Dumitrescu in the mid-2000s all share such a raft of common features that we can, while still drawing distinctions between individual perspectives, nevertheless recognize in their totality a general sense impression of metamodernism that is shared by all. By comparison, Vermeulen and van den Akker’s current approach to metamodernism as neither a movement nor a system of logic removes metamodernism, it would seem, from the post-postmodernism debate altogether—by terming as “cultural paradigm” what appears to be, instead, a phenomenon lacking paradigmatic features. This is especially so now that terms like “movement” and “system of logic” (as well as much of the language long employed to describe the instrumentalization of cultural paradigms) has been removed from the Vermeulen/van den Akker discourse. That metamodernism as they describe it is, per this article and the Continental fora referenced above, merely a new take on old-fashioned postmodern dialectics is another significant complication.

(For what it’s worth, I will say here that I think Vermeulen and van den Akker do not so much preclude the instrumentalization of metamodernism as stand in such suspicion of it that their rather hasty denial of terms like “movement” and “system of logic” is more reactive than dogmatic. As noted, these phrases are clearly applicable to metamodernism, even if what we do with them is up for debate and disagreement.)

The next entry in the series can be read here: #3: Developing a Guiding Metaphor for the Metamodern.

Metamodern musicians like Holly Herndon and Donald Glover redefine terms like “voice” and “tone.” Is Herndon’s music voice-driven or synthetic? Is Glover’s “Sober” romantic or creepy?

Situating Zavarzadean Metamodernism, #1: What Is Metamodernism?

In the first of six ruminations on recent developments in metamodernism, I address the question of whether and how metamodernists can come to an agreement on the basic principles of the philosophy. I develop a rudimentary outline for metamodernism and begin the process of distinguishing between different readings of the term. The current choke-point in the discipline—a single, narrow reading of the term proposed by a specific cadre of individuals—is introduced.

“I think the term “metamodernism” offers ample room for spirited debate and disagreement among peers—including, importantly, over how to read the “meta-” prefix itself.”

Recent years have seen metamodernists from around the world struggling to create an international dialogue around the topic due to disagreements over what the term “metamodernism” could or does signify. In some respects this is no different a state of affairs from that faced by early postmodernists in the mid-twentieth century, and is endemic to any dialogue about an emerging cultural paradigm. In other respects, the persistent fragmentation of metamodern discourse is an unnecessary and damaging condition that remains—for a little while longer, at least—capable of redress. If there are, going forward, to be international convocations of metamodern scholars at conferences and symposia, one thing that will have to change, and soon, is this: different readings of the term must no longer be recast as entirely different conversations, whose participants would no more naturally expect to engage one another than would car salesmen and cheesemongers.

While metamodernists in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia may disagree on certain important questions—e.g., can metamodernism be instrumentalized, and if so, how? Does metamodernism permit the transcendence of postmodern dialectics, or merely change our relationship with postmodernism?—these are the sorts of inquiries that can and do get discussed at conferences and symposia convened for and by (for instance) scholars of postmodernism. What can no longer be indulged or tolerated, however, especially in discussions of a term that naturally engages both Modernist and postmodern principles, is the claim that some metamodern philosophers are participating in an entirely different discourse from their peers.

From wherever they hail, and howsoever they approach the term metamodernism, all those publicly exploring the topic of metamodernism seem to concur on a number of points:

      • The term was coined in 1975, by Mas’ud Zavarzadeh. It thereafter appeared in a variety of contexts, albeit mostly academic journals, in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.
      • The term did not enter common parlance until the early 2010s, and when it did so it was owing in substantial part to essays (and a website) authored by Dutch cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker.
      • While certain trends and events in the nineteenth and preceding centuries may have exhibited qualities now popularly termed “metamodern,” as a discrete and reflexive cultural paradigm metamodernism is best and currently discussed as having manifested sometime in the last half-century. While some see proto-manifestations of metamodernism in the early 1970s, and while nearly all agree that the great metamodern novel written thus far in English (Infinite Jest) was begun in the mid-1980s, metamodern cultural detritus did not become ubiquitous until the late 1990s or early twenty-first century.
      • The Internet is a significant inflector of metamodern phenomena.
      • Metamodernism is a mediation between principles of Modernism and postmodernism.
      • Metamodernism is a cultural paradigm discrete from Modernism and postmodernism.
      • Metamodernism proposes a system of thought and feeling—for both individuals, groups of individuals, and even institutions—that is distinct from the systems enacted by the Modernist and postmodern paradigms.
      • As was the case with Modernism and postmodernism, there will be those who seek to “instrumentalize” metamodernism for artistic, political, or other ends. Metamodernism can also exist in a purely scholarly or retrospective sphere that is not invested in instrumentalization.
      • Manifestations of metamodernism are ubiquitous; there is no sphere of human activity in which we do not presently find the metamodern.
      • Metamodernism arises from a yearning; that yearning most commonly relates to the dissatisfactions produced (or simply maintained or exacerbated) by postmodernism.
      • Metamodernism is a global phenomenon with local but necessarily interconnected manifestations.
      • Metamodernism will be read and/or actuated differently by different scholars, artists, activists, et cetera; having a different reading of the term’s minute valences does not make one a liar, “hoax artist,” troll, or “closet postmodernist,” provided that one accepts most or all of the exceedingly basic presuppositions listed here.
      • Metamodernism (and research into metamodernism) is still in its very, very early stages.
      • Research into (and investigations of) metamodernism may manifest differently depending upon the discipline in which the scholar or artist is working. For instance, literary metamodernism may diverge in some respects from metamodernism in the visual arts—simply because the cultural philosophy is interacting, in these two cases, with different media.
      • Metamodernism does not so much signal a wholesale rejection of either Modernism or postmodernism as a subsuming of principles endemic to each for a new purpose and structure. In other words, postmodernism has not so much “ended” as it has been subsumed within and then superseded by a new cultural paradigm.

In reading (and speaking with) metamodernists from Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, I’ve found the basic outline of the term offered above to be consistent. What has not been consistent is a willingness to further explore specific valences of metamodernism as part of an international dialogue.

Recently, some associated with the longstanding website Notes on Metamodernism have sought to distinguish their consideration of metamodernism from all others with the claim that they are discussing an entirely different term and concept from other metamodernists. In some instances they accuse other metamodernists of being closet postmodernists; in other instances they call them liars or hoax artists; in still other instances they concede their peers are discussing a new “modernism” but reject the idea that this modernism has anything whatsoever to do with metamodernism as Notes on Metamodernism discusses it—so much so that the idea of regular international conferences or symposia of metamodern scholars increasingly seems unlikely. While the position of Notes of Metamodernism toward other metamodernists internationally would normally be immaterial, at this vulnerable early stage of metamodern discourse it matters because—the times being as “early” as they are—a single website, no matter how provincial, can still wield substantial influence. This won’t be the case five years from now, but it’s where things stand today. The result is that while conferences and symposia relating to the readings of metamodernism found in Notes on Metamodernism have already been held, prerequisites for attendance have been set which insist on common readings of the term “metamodernism”—for instance, a belief that “oscillation” is at the center of the concept because it is and must be at the center of the concept’s “meta-” prefix.

Within the last two months, however, there has been a breakthrough of sorts, and this six-part blog-like rumination on where metamodernism stands today is related to that breakthrough. The breakthrough came in an essay recently published by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker in which the two Dutch cultural theorists a) concede that the first consequential usage of the term pre-dates 2010, and in fact harkens to 1975; b) allow that “metaxy” (and thus “oscillation”) may not, in fact, be an intractable feature of metamodern philosophy, thus opening up the possibility that those who demur from “oscillatory metamodernism” may also be metamodern scholars worthy of serious and ongoing engagement; and c) situate at the center of their own view of metamodernism an analogy for the paradigm—a complicated one involving an abandoned swimmer and several islands offering possible rescue—which is not, in fact, far removed from the paradigm as understood by metamodern scholars elsewhere in the world.

The idea now accepted by Vermeulen, van den Akker, and their website Notes on Metamodernism—that metamodernism constitutes not so much a dialectical operation as a yearning to escape one’s present, postmodernism-enabled circumstances, and a concurrent difficulty in doing so—offers new hope of a heterogeneous international dialogue about metamodernism. It suggests that we can finally move beyond the false accusations and false distinctions (along the lines of, “your term is not my term, so we’ve nothing to discuss”) that have plagued this budding scholarly dialogue in the past.

By accepting Mas’ud Zavarzadeh’s place in the history of metamodernism-qua-term, Vermeulen and van den Akker have invited, too, a response from those who believe Zavarzadean metamodernism to be one important reading of the paradigm—if not (still) one that Vermeulen and van den Akker accept as constituting a new modernism. Because I find Vermeulen and van den Akker’s reading of Zavarzadeh not just thoroughly unconvincing but indeed a dramatic misreading of the scholar’s seminal text on metamodernism (1975’s “The Apocalyptic Fact and the Eclipse of Fiction in Recent American Prose Narratives”) and because I myself have come to approach metamodernism primarily through the lens first offered by Zavarzadeh, I’ve written this rumination to attempt a sort of reconciliation. In the future my hope would be to do the same for metamodernism as discussed on Metamoderna, for metamodernism as discussed by Alexandra Dumitrescu and Gary Forrester (and many others) in Australia and New Zealand, and for metamodernism as discussed by artists such as American poet/filmmaker Jesse Damiani and Spanish poet/novelist Vicente Lopez. By “reconciliation” I mean here only a better situation of these readings with respect to one another, not a paving over of differences. Again, beyond the basic principles articulated above I think the term “metamodernism” offers ample room for spirited debate and disagreement among peers—including, importantly, over how to read the “meta-” prefix itself.

The next entry in the series can be read here: #2: Metamodernism Across the Disciplines.

Bo Burnham’s “what.” and Reggie Watts’ “Why Shit So Crazy?” are tours-de-force of metamodern performance art:

Oh, Harris. Oh, Chomsky

The intellectual internet reverberates. Small gods pause for a moment. Something interesting happened yesterday. The moral philosopher, neo-atheist, critic of Islam and all things religious (and secular proponent of meditation and spirituality) Sam Harris released a fascinating recent e-mail exchange with the intellectual giant of the Left: Noam Chomsky, the number one linguist and political commentator in the world.

“I believe that there is a position that is analytically superior to that of both Harris and Chomsky, and that a person adopting this position can avoid the problems raised by both authors.”

With a touch of self-irony, Harris entitled the exchange “The Limits of Discourse: As Demonstrated by Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky”. On Facebook alone, the post has attracted over 4000 likes and 1500 shares. The discussions rage on as people take stands and assess their discussion. These two famous people, who Harris estimates have about a million readers in common, are at each other’s throats.

They are trying to resolve some issues of mutual accusations in the public debate and to understand each other’s position to clarify their own points and moral assessment. I will try to give my input into their discussion, leaving out assessments of who did best (or worst) in their mail exchange. I believe that there is a position that is analytically superior to that of both Harris and Chomsky, and that a person adopting this position can avoid the problems raised by both authors. Such a position concedes that both writers are partly right, but also holds that they are both partly wrong.

What their quarrel is about

Basically, the two authors are arguing about whether or not war crimes perpetrated by the US, the Clinton administration in particular, are as bad as Al Qaeda’s attack during 9/11.

Chomsky holds that the crimes of the US are perhaps not equivalent with Al Qaeda’s attack on 9/11, that they are of a different kind and character, but that they are nevertheless just as morally appalling. He exemplifies this with the bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan 1998, the Al-Shifa plant. This factory seems to have been bombed as a retaliation for the bombing of the US embassy. The results were catastrophic as Sudan, already a country in deep crisis, could not replenish the vital medicines and thousands of innocent people died from curable diseases as a result. Chomsky draws the conclusion that President Clinton must have understood these consequences and acted callously to reach his political goals, ignoring the fates of so many innocents simply because they were Africans.

Harris holds that the US is morally superior to Al Qaeda and that the chief difference is that Al Qaeda hold irrational beliefs derived from their religion, Islam. He concedes that the US is guilty of many crimes, but that there is a severe difference of degree and intentionality between these and groups like Al Qaeda. He believes that the Clinton administration must have accidentally caused the deaths of so many innocents while having more morally viable intentions, like believing that the Al-Shifa plant was in fact producing chemical weapons.

Chomsky in turn sees Harris’s position as offering an excuse for aggressive and tyrannical foreign policy. He means that Harris is not using the same yardstick for US aggression as for the terrorists. If US aggression caused more deaths – and crueler, slower deaths by diseases – it must be just as bad, or worse, than 9/11, and it is the duty of citizens of a democratic society to speak out against and condemn such actions. He feels that just because the US government may not have acted following the word of God, it doesn’t make its crimes any less serious.

When Harris insists that there is a difference of intention, that the intentions of the US government was almost certainly not to cause harm to innocent people, Chomsky retorts that he is not interested in such benign intentionality because all kinds of bad guys have “nice intentions”, like when the Japanese attacked China filled with the conviction that they were creating the foundations for an earthly paradise.

“I would like to add some notions to develop their points towards a common understanding – but also towards a metamodern critique of both.”

This is about as far as the two authors get in their exchange. I would like to add some notions to develop their points towards a common understanding – but also towards a metamodern critique of both.

Intentionality vs. consequence

The first point is the simplest. There are four different schools of ethics, four major ways of ascribing moral value (or lack thereof) to actions: intentionality, consequence, virtue (personal character of the individual) and principle (universal, logical moral principles).

We can use all four, or combinations between them, to resolve the dispute. But let’s stick with the two that the authors employ in this particular mail exchange. (Note however that both authors have used all four forms of ethics in their earlier works and thought).

If we look at the intentionality it arguably seems that 9/11 is more murderous than the bombing of Al-Shifa, because people are directly targeted as victims. It simply seems implausible that Bill Clinton’s mind and heart were filled with hatred and mayhem when he ordered the bombing. This is the same guy who tried to get health service to the US population and stop the Rwanda genocide and today is an advocate of an equitable, green global community. Of course, we cannot know for sure. But it seems likely that he must not have been able to grasp the full human consequences. It seems likely that he cognitively failed to realize the abstract notion of so many lives at risk through his actions in a pressed situation. This can be contrasted to the 9/11 bombers who worked hard for years to inflict very direct and tangible harm to people. That requires a quantity of malign intention that we’d be hard pressed to find in Mr. President even if we squeezed his deep psyche dry of every drop of repressed anger. In this school of thought Harris is right – unless we adopt a conspiracy theory induced worldview where we honestly believe that the US is run by murderous psychopaths.

If we look at consequences, US aggression is way worse. More people killed, more lives destroyed, greater messes made. So from a consequence ethics perspective, Chomsky is right.

So far so good. But it doesn’t really resolve the conflict. Is Chomsky correct to let actions and consequences speak for themselves, ignoring stated “benign” intentions? Is Harris excusing cruel US aggression by adding a spiritual, vague factor like “intentionality”?

Beyond Chomsky and Harris is Jürgen Habermas

If we look at this question from the perspective of another intellectual giant, Jürgen Habermas, the field clears. In his theory of communicative action he distinguishes between three fundamental requirements of statements or other actions.

      • Truth value – is the statement correct, compared with “objective reality”?
      • Moral value – is it morally justifiable?
      • Truthfulness – is the speaker honest about his/her intention?

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If you break down 9/11 and Al-Shifa into these three parts, it becomes much easier to distinguish between them and the intentionality behind them.

In terms of truth value, the crucial question becomes if the US government fully realized the consequences of their actions. Again, this we cannot know, but it is less clear that they did than Osama bin Laden and friends.

In terms of moral value, they have different justifications. The US government believes that they are upholding a certain political order or system; let’s call it a modern democratic capitalist world order on which large parts of the world population depend. Al Qaeda terrorists believe that they are fighting oppression and bringing a holy kingdom into the world. More people would buy the moral grounds of the US government, as the order they are defending is more inclusive and ethically defensible than that of Al Qaeda, even if it is far from the highest conceivable moral principle.

“To what extent are they perpetrators of these different crimes deluding themselves, emotionally and intellectually? How much are their respective justifications just “excuses” for acting from hurt, hateful emotions that wish to harm and degrade others?”

The real action happens at truthfulness. To what extent are they perpetrators of these different crimes deluding themselves, emotionally and intellectually? How much are their respective justifications just “excuses” for acting from hurt, hateful emotions that wish to harm and degrade others? The US government seems guilty of many such ideological excuses and manipulations, but compared to Al Qaeda, they would pass the truthfulness test with flying colors. It is simply much less believable that Al Qaeda acted, in all honesty, from the love of their hearts or from a wish for peace and stability. The intention to harm is so obvious in their ideology and activity that their project must be seen as a much greater lie than the US bid for world power.

With Habermas then, Harris takes a solid lead over Chomsky. Chomsky collapses these three dimensions of communicative action and fails to see that Al Qaeda act from a less generalizable moral system and that they are less truthful in their intentions.

The answer is moral development

What both authors miss, even if Harris mentions it briefly but seems to lack the theory to explicate what he means, is that Al Qaeda and the US government act from two distinctly different stages of moral and psycho-social development. In the light of this part of the argument Chomsky comes out ahead of Harris, but only somewhat, as you will see. Here’s what I mean.

There are specific moral systems and social orders in human societies that can be ranked according to complexity and inclusiveness. They have been described in many forms, the simplest one being Spiral Dynamics based on the developmental psychology of Clare Graves. Here are some simplified stages:

        • Tribal values
        • Warrior-king imperialist values
        • Traditional values
        • Modern values
        • Postmodern values
        • Metamodern values

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Now, Al Qaeda is a radicalization of traditional Islam. They don’t only seek to achieve a peaceful albeit somewhat medieval order like most traditional Muslims (like the Saudi government, etc.), but put holy war, sacrifice and killing at the heart of their religion and ideology. In a psycho-social sense, this is a regression to an earlier stage – from the relatively stable traditional stage to an earlier one: warrior-king imperialist values. When societies break down or experience great pressure and instability, parts of the population may regress to earlier stages and the simpler cognitive frames, interpretations of the world.

Regressions of these kinds are often very destructive. Imagine having Genghis Khan running a modern bureaucracy – and you get the Nazis. When modern global networks use the internet to achieve a holy war for the sake of the struggle itself – you get Al Qaeda. Originally this stage emerged when some tribes grew in strength and began conquering surrounding tribes, taking slaves and imposing their power gods linked to a strong leader. They were aggressive, but also achieved the first centralized, urban societies.

The US government is largely working from modern values. They believe themselves to work for a universal, enlightened and fair order of economic competition, democracy and free speech. They at least attempt to uphold and defend human rights.

What happens with Harris is that he takes the modern values for granted and does not offer due respect to earlier or later stages of moral development. He simply believes that large parts of the world population are under the influence of some strange spell he calls “irrational religious beliefs”. He believes that, if only this strange spell were broken, people would reason like himself, like a modern mind. He fails to see that the world and the manifold of constructed meaningful universes within it are under development. He thinks that if you just criticize and ridicule God enough, people will snap out of it and start acting normal. In fact, people are responding to whole psychological worlds that they encounter, and they take the explanations at hand that speak best to their emotions given the social settings they are in. He fails to see that Al Qaeda fighters are not primarily Muslims, but hurt souls with regressive psycho-social development. And you must see the specific historical events that caused this harm – in which US foreign policy played a large and often unfortunate part. Harris does not sufficiently distinguish between traditional Islam and the regressive warrior-king imperialist version of Al Qaeda. Nor does he concede that there can be modern and postmodern forms of much more up-to-date Islam (which do exist).

“Harris does not sufficiently distinguish between traditional Islam and the regressive warrior-king imperialist version of Al Qaeda. Nor does he concede that there can be modern and postmodern forms of much more up-to-date Islam (which do exist).”

Here Chomsky is better. He understands that strange beliefs and social, political and structural pathologies are not contained within religion. He understands that modern ideologies can be just as irrational, sectarian and oppressive – and often much less innocent than believing in the odd miracle or that Jesus walked on water. He sees that Al Qaeda and others like them are reacting to real, political issues that have messed up their lives and made them who they are.

Where Chomsky goes wrong is when he does not admit to Harris that there is indeed a great – vast – difference of quality between the terrorism of Al Qaeda and US aggression. The US is working from a modern set of values where all humans are seen as equal. They often fail to live up to those values and sometimes colonial or traditional religious values sneak in and cause regression or hypocrisy, but their general set of norms are just much higher and more developed than those of Al Qaeda.

This is because Chomsky himself, an intellectual anarchist, operates from postmodern values, which themselves emerge by critiquing modern values and the inconsistencies of modern society. Doing this, he fails to offer due respect to the real progress made in societies like the US, which is what seems to tick Harris off.

Oh Harris. Oh Chomsky

US atrocities exist, but they are a much smaller part of the US than terrorism is of Al Qaeda and they happen in a completely different moral universe. Compare the two institutions, US government and Al Qaeda. The US has much, much greater power and budget. This means that whatever they do in the world, it is amplified thousandfold for good and bad. Consider the US budget. It has a solid percentage of its expenses in the military, but still a small percentage. Out of this military power only a fraction is actually employed in very aggressive or harmful ways. Now imagine that Al Qaeda had that power. Would they not be doing stuff that is much, much worse than what the US has been up to the last decades? Would not Chomsky be a much busier man writing about their foreign policy? Wouldn’t we expect, like with ISIS today, mass deportation, rampant aggression, oppressive laws on women and genocide left and right?

There’s the difference that Harris is looking for. And as far as the moral difference between the US and Al Qaeda goes, Harris is right and Chomsky is wrong. But Chomsky is right in criticizing the US government for not being postmodern enough. Harris is doing something considerably less fruitful and insensitive to historical context: criticizing Al Qaeda for not having values modern enough, without looking for what part the US may have played in the creation of such pathology.

My five cents is to critique Harris and Chomsky, both – for not being metamodern enough. Metamodern thought and sentiment are sensitive to the multiple dimensions of ethics, to historical context and to the crucial role of moral, psychological and social development.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.