“What is society?” is the classical question of sociology. The question could easily be asked within anthropology, economics, political science, psychology or philosophy and the humanities. But it has stayed within the field of sociology; it is this discipline that purports to wrestle and at least provisionally answer the question. It is a question that grows out of a developed “naturalistic” worldview, in which humans have acquired a 3rd person view of reality, as something to be viewed “from the outside”, beginning from the Copernican, Baconian and Newtonian revolutions of cosmology, scientific method and physics. Once nature began to be differentiated as a category and described (“it is a set of objects locked in mechanical motion through space” (Newton)), so society itself began to appear as a category that “is something”. But as society and our perspectives evolve, so does the perspective from which we can “see society itself”; new ways of asking what society is appear and new answers and intuitions emerge.
The modern view of society used some kind of naturalistic metaphor to approach the answer: society is a set of forces, it is the result of development and selection, it is material conditions and flows, it is a set of rules and regulations, it is a power balance, it is tamed forces of nature, it consists of fields that govern human action, thoughts and feelings.
The postmodern view of society challenged some of these naturalistic descriptives and took up the battle against the supremacy of natural science: maybe, after all, the social sciences and humanities were not inferior to the natural sciences – it could even be argued that they are more fundamental. After all, all natural science appears within the framework of one culture, different cultures producing worldviews (Weltanschauungs) according to the social and economic relations within these societies. Even Newtonian physics appeared and was spread within certain historical and political circumstances. So maybe the study of culture and society even precedes the study of nature. A barrage of social scientists, humanities professors and philosophers began to argue for an understanding of society not as an object, but as a perspective that guides human action and determines what values humans pursue. Society is not just an object as any other, but part and parcel of how we can ask questions and pursue truths in the first place. If there is such a thing as “human progress” this can only ever be known as it is descripted from within the symbolic frameworks of a certain society. We cannot access a “view from nowhere”, or see, as it were, from the “eyes of God”.
The metamodern view of society takes off from this postmodern standpoint and synthesizes the modern and postmodern ideas by studying how abstract patterns of viewing and interacting with the world unfold through a sequence of developmental stages. We can call these stages “metamemes”, as they are very general patterns that structure all of the other memes: from art, to philosophy, to science, to norms and values, to laws and legal systems. This metamodern view of society departs from the postmodern one because it reintroduces a self-critical and provisional understanding of progress. It views society both as a natural object and as a perspective, where neither of these two aspects can be seen as most fundamental and ultimately determining the other.
Let’s sum up some metamodern viewpoints and intuitions of society. To have a metamodern view of society is…
- To see no fundamental divide between nature and culture.
- To see that we live in a new technological era (the information age), and that human societies evolve through different developmental stages for better or worse.
- To believe that history has some kind of directionality based on logic, but that this directionality can never be certainly known, only metaphorically and told as a story – playfully and purposefully.
- To believe that we can always synthesize the knowledge we have about society to some kind of overarching narrative, a meta-narrative, but that this metanarrative is never taken to be a complete synthesis, but rather always a self-critically held, but necessary protosynthesis.
- To have a nomadic view of social life; knowing that our “self” is part of a social flow, a journey – and that we are becoming more tribal and nomadic in the internet age with our virtual identities.
- To celebrate participatory culture and co-creation of society through non-linear, interactive processes where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
- To see the importance of collective intelligence (not to be confused, as it unfortunately often is, with collective consciousness, often associated with Carl Jung, etc., which is not part of the metamodern paradigm). Collective intelligence is simply the ability of a group or society to solve problems and respond to collective challenges.
- To understand that technology is not neutral, not just “a tool in our hands”, but that it adopts its own agenda and logic, shaping and steering history.
- To see sustainability and resilience as fundamental questions to all social life.
- To see that sexuality and sexual development are a widely overlooked centerpiece in the mainstream understanding of all human societies. Sexuality has extraordinary explanatory, behavioral and predictive power.
- To see “everyday life” as something that humanity can and should transcend in favor of a more actual and authentic form of life and community.
- To take the rights and lived experience of all animals very seriously, human and non-human. Human society is just a cognitive category, and this category can just as well include all cultures, all deep-ecological entities (ecosystems, biotopes) and all sentient beings.
Let’s revisit some of these points briefly.
”Humans can experience higher states of consciousness and this is also a significant driving force of all societies, and in a world with more possibilities and complexities than ever before, such transcendence becomes increasingly relevant to understanding how society can and should develop.”
A Deeper and More Complex View of Society
Whereas the postmodern view of society grows especially strong under the age of television and mass media, as analyzed succinctly by theorists such as Marshall McLuhan and Theodor Adorno, the metamodern view emerges in full only today as the internet begins to fully saturate society; we go from a view of culture as generated and steered through creations of surfaces, images created by use of camera perspectives and staged through consciously or unconsciously created perspectives, to one that is more participatory and diffused through social media and all manner of internet phenomena.
This participatory perspective also includes the people who try to understand “what society is”; we are no longer “critics” and “public intellectuals” but our aim is more explicitly to tell new histories about society and its development, which in turn constitutes an attempt to steer this development. We actively and deliberately take society’s development into our hands – by pointing out different key features of its development. We know that these stories are always dependent upon the limitations of our societies (as well as our personal limitations), and that they cannot be “eternally true”. It’s just that we try to put forward a “proto-synthesis” of what can be known or reasonably believed about society at this particular point in history, trying to create generalizable stories (or “meta-narratives”) about what’s going on in society and where things are headed, and – to a limited extent – where it should be headed.
Another key feature of the internet society is that we have an easier time finding people from across the globe who think and act like ourselves: so we begin to form smaller online communities and cliques who exchange ideas, services and emotional support in the larger project of changing society. This dynamic has been described in detail by the internet theorists Bard and Söderqvist: people organize in virtual tribes with people who share their worldview, and this goes especially for people with a metamodern view, as these are still relatively rare and tend to live even more “online” lives than others.
This participatory view of society, i.e. trying to steer its development by creation of new meta-narratives (or by reinventing arts, lifestyles, business and politics in accordance to these new developmental metanarratives), invites a profound interest in creating good processes through which such endeavors can be successful. Because of the deeply social and communicative nature of such projects, it is simply not sufficient to be a smart and informed individual; we must struggle to achieve higher collective intelligence. This goes both for the cliques of metamodern virtual tribes as well as for the larger structures of society: we must improve the collective intelligence of politics, business, legal systems, social life, family life, ethnic relations and activism. In metamodern circles you will encounter an almost obsessive occupation with issues that deal with the facilitation of meetings, discussions and organizational development – and many of the practically oriented metamodernists work for years to become skilled facilitators and designers of meetings. All of these processes interact with the communicative information technologies and the social technologies that are used, which also put these at the forefront of metamodern areas of concern.
Following futurists such as Kevin Kelly (and perhaps, some late postmodern theorists, such as Bruno Latour) metamodernists don’t view technology as a neutral medium in the hands of humans; rather, humans are as shaped by technology as vice versa. Facebook and smartphones, for instance, change the nature of our social relations, and thus they change us. Humanity and the natural environment are transformed by technology in ways that certainly cannot be understood through the intentional actions of humans themselves. Hence, we see that the development of society proceeds in deeply non-linear ways, meaning that society evolves through a logic that is far from proportional to human intentions and activities.
But amidst this technological saturation of human life, we are still emotional and sexual creatures. We have not only simple animal drives but also socially created and defined human desires. So in the midst of the incredible and accelerating transformations, we must still seek to understand the deeply seated sexual sides of our psyches: we are never freed from wanting, from craving, from hoping, from envying, from fearing and from the onslaught of self-deceit and rationalizations that our minds are subjected to. The metamodern perspective of society seeks to avoid the naivety that grows from overlooking these primal and ever-present concerns.
Likewise, metamodern thinking takes into account that humans are also religious and spiritual beings that strive to relieve themselves and one another from the suffering and limitations of everyday life. Indeed, once the higher reaches of human consciousness have been recognized, it becomes clear that everyday life itself – with its relative stability and mundanity – is something that can and should be transcended. There is a sexual beast at the heart of humanity, but there is also, at the horizon, always just out of reach, the possibility of transcendence. Humans can experience higher states of consciousness and this is also a significant driving force of all societies, and in a world with more possibilities and complexities than ever before, such transcendence becomes increasingly relevant to understanding how society can and should develop.
One of the key issues of such transcendence has to do with expanding the understanding of society itself: that our ethical reasoning is sharpened so that we live with fewer self-contradictions and paradoxes, that the sphere of concern is stretched out to include wider and deeper concerns for the environment and the non-human animals, that the purpose by which life is lived is itself expanded to take on deeper and more universal forms. This is the direction in which metamoderns ultimately seek to transform society.
Such a transformation of society in a transcendent direction has its crux around the transformation of the human being itself. In the next and final entry of this exposé we turn to the metamodern view of the human being.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, and the upcoming books ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.