The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the chapter on symbol-stages, the evolution of our shared symbolic toolkits.
”Beyond all human affairs, beyond all of our dramas and passions, lies something far more absolute, a reality more real than our everyday lives.” —The Premodern Mind
The Wisdoms of the “Axial” Age
Around 2500 years ago, across the Eurasian continent, there was a widespread critique of the “might makes right” logic that prevailed in the complex agrarian societies of the time. This period has also been termed “the Axial age” and it is here we find the beginnings of many of the classical religions, wisdom traditions and philosophical schools: from Judaism on to Christianity and Islam, and the Greek Socratic philosophies in the West, over Zoroastrianism to Hinduism with the birth of the Buddhist, Jain, Confucian and Taoist traditions in the East.
All of these traditions abstract certain universal understandings from the stories and narratives of their time. There is not just “the gods”, but a “God above all gods” – the ultimate abstraction. But this is not only found in Abrahamic religions, you have the Brahman in Hinduism, formless emptiness as the ground of being in Buddhism, the Tao in Taoism, the Tian (heaven above all the gods) in Confucianism, Ahura Mazda (the lord of wisdom) in Zoroastrianism, not to mention how Plato and Aristotle began speaking of “God” in singular despite the fact that they were brought up with the polytheistic Greek pantheon, without any contact with Abrahamic religions.
I am of course not claiming that these traditions had no significant qualitative differences between them (or that any of them make up one monolithic system). Particularly Socratic philosophy, Taoism and Jainism stand out, I would argue, as more radically critical of their own societies. But I am claiming that it is no coincidence that they appear under comparable historical circumstances (viz. within highly developed agrarian regimes with literary traditions) and that there is an underlying logic that explains this fact (you can read more about this in my history book, The 6 Hidden Patterns of History.)
The basic idea is that there is something unnamable beyond all stories we mere mortals can tell ourselves, a universal truth beyond anything we can comprehend, to which we must ultimately surrender. Exit the god-king, the pharaoh; in walks the righteous rebel. Exit Prometheus and his defiance of the gods – and the saints come marching in. Exit rebellion, violence and power; enter surrender, peace and harmony. Beyond all human affairs, beyond all of our dramas and passions, lies something far more absolute, a reality more real than our everyday lives.
You have a God or Universal Truth, and the human being has a soul of her own. And what all the wisdom teachers of the Axial Age are telling us is basically the same: don’t sell your soul for pleasure and power! It just ain’t worth it.
This existence of a Universal Truth with a capital T means that rebellion is futile: the rebel Satan is no longer a cool prince or demigod, but the ultimate symbol of evil. Competing “power gods” like Baal become demoted to demon status; there is only one God (or other fundamental principle, as in the Eastern traditions).
” What we today consider traditional or premodern society is actually born from a radical critique of injustice, war, slavery, oppression and degradation – of the arbitrary use and abuse of power.”
But, and this is a big but, this also means that no king, ruler or wielder of power can have any ultimate authority beyond serving the universal truth. So the saints and prophets are righteous critics and rebels, wishing to align their societies with a deeper, universal order of the cosmos. The Chinese emperor remains, but only as long as he upholds the Mandate of Heaven; no longer is he a god in earthly robes, now merely a divinely dressed man on a contract from God. And in India, all rulers must submit to the rajadharma, the path of kings. Sure, render unto Caesar what belongs to him; but remember, that in the last instance the law of the heart precedes any law of the land, says Jesus. And to speak out against an unjust ruler, adds another prophet, is the highest form of jihad.
What we today consider traditional or premodern society is actually born from a radical critique of injustice, war, slavery, oppression and degradation – of the arbitrary use and abuse of power. It is here that humanity realizes that the truth will set her free. Still operating within the limits of agricultural, pre-industrial societies, these traditions set out to create disciplined spiritual practices to develop the human soul towards realization of the ultimate truth, towards some form of inner ascension. And they set out to create just, harmonious societies based on the truth as revealed by the enlightened ones, the prophets or messengers of God. The kings begin to try to show that their particular rule is indeed the most faithful one, that their power is universally justifiable as the natural order of things, that their supremacy serves the truth.
”In its grasp for universality, this kind of thinking creates a mindless defense of its own particularity, where the deviant and the stranger are harshly discriminated against and punished.”
The One True Faith?
But what truth? There is always one true path set for us by the prophets – even in the relatively open-minded faith of Jainism – and the other perspectives are ultimately false. This creates a blind spot of humongous proportions: ethnocentricity, i.e. that you only see the perspective and interests of one ethnic group, culture or civilization.
Sure, anybody can be Christian, but what happens if somebody is just not? As soon as the “universal truth”, like the word of Jesus, is seriously challenged, this creates an open wound in our whole reality. If those other people, say the Muslims, do not believe in this truth, then either the truth must be false, or they must be collectively mistaken, misguided or degenerate.
If the One Truth is false, it also means that the reality itself that I live in, that the one source of good, love and hope in this harsh world, is nowhere to be found – that the justification for all my morality is false. It means that my soul, which is given to me eternally by God, does not exist. If others can find reasons to defy this faith, perhaps its truth is not universal after all? No, it cannot be so! Let the infidels die and burn in hell – or convert.
One becomes prepared to oppress and destroy others in order to resist such challenges to one’s ontology (sense of reality), ideology (sense of what a good society is) and sense of self (the social construction of an ego), to protect and maintain the boundaries of one’s symbolic universe. In fact, every infidel becomes a threat to one’s entire symbolic universe. And the heretic becomes even more menacing – one of our own who knows the Truth, but still betrays it. Just notice how gruesomely the word “heretic” appears even in its written form; this is a heritage from the Axial Age.
In its grasp for universality, this kind of thinking creates a mindless defense of its own particularity, where the deviant and the stranger are harshly discriminated against and punished. Where it reaches for universal solidarity and sisterhood, it creates boundaries and holy wars. Instead of setting us on a search for universal truth, it says it already has the Truth and installs the inquisition; it suppresses all other perspectives in zeal and missionary madness. And as it reaches for mercy and kindness in the name of the poor and wretched, it creates justifications for kings and bishops to rule us and fool us.
”Why should we trust the words of others, even of the messengers of God, if we can’t check for ourselves and then let others double-check our own perceptions?” —The Modern Mind
The Brave New World of Modernity
But if the “truth” is to be truly universal, said the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, shouldn’t it be verifiable by everyone? That is, shouldn’t it be inter-subjectively confirmable (or “falsifiable”, as Blaise Pascal and Karl Popper clarified), so that we make certain that what you see is what I see?
Why should we trust the words of others, even of the messengers of God, if we can’t check for ourselves and then let others double-check our own perceptions? If both you and I see the moons of Jupiter, then surely the moons of Jupiter are there? If only I see angels and hobgoblins, and none of you do, is it not safer to assume, that there are no angels and hobgoblins?
This line of thinking leads us down the path of materialism, reductionism, positivism, determinism and scientism: there is a real reality “out there”, and by means of inter-subjectivity, by verification, by science and the scientific method (induction, deduction and abduction), we can go beyond the shackles of subjective illusion and see the real world for the first time.
Beyond our senses, our stories, feelings, thoughts and social conventions lies a grey, colorless world consisting only of meaningless stuff that blindly follows an unchangeable, mechanical logic set out by no-one and nothing at the dawn of the universe. The world of facts. Everything, including our consciousness, is a giant machine, consisting of particles or waves that collide and together create all of the phenomena we know: evolution, DNA, energy, entropy, atoms, symmetry, quanta, cosmology, spacetime – all bound within the same basic arithmetic. But even the particles and waves are only superficial aspects of the ever-present fields that saturate and constitute the universe. The scientific method, and the instruments that go beyond our perceptions, help us “lose our senses”: because our senses betray us. They were only evolved to see and relate to a thin slice of reality, as was our reasoning mind. By disciplining and bending our minds, we are breaking the shackles of illusion.
Physics becomes chemistry becomes biochemistry becomes biology becomes psychology becomes sociology. With each step you lose some elegance and precision – but this is only because of the imperfection of our knowledge. And at each level, the same Baconian scientific method (invented by Francis Bacon) reigns supreme. There is only one reality, one truth carved in stone. In physics.
”The individual is freed and empowered by science – the dignity of man born under its electric light.” —The Modern Mind
Death to the Soul, Long Live the Individual
Initially René Descartes kept “the soul” as a strange ghost in the machine, but soon enough all such ghosts could be exorcized and left was only the machine. The machine – in blind, perpetual, meaningless, mechanical motion – is the ultimate reality, the final truth beyond all truths. Laplace said it: if there was a “demon” who knew and could calculate all positions and all speeds of all particles in the universe, this entity would know all things that will ever occur. What of God? asked Napoleon, and Laplace replied: “Your majesty, I have no use for that hypothesis”.
Exit God. Exit Jesus and Mohammed and all the saints and their arbitrary stories, always hinging on subjective opinion and historical contingencies. We have been fooled and manipulated by what is ultimately just a bunch of power hungry and self-righteous potheads who dreamed up realities that suited them. But now we are waking up, maturing, and the individual can take responsibility and see for herself, see if it makes sense. The individual is freed and empowered by science – the dignity of man born under its electric light. Literally speaking: deaths in childbirth and child mortality fall dramatically.
We leave behind the private revelations, the ones found in remote caves after forty days of solitude, and bring forth the public revelation – that which can be confirmed by every human being by virtue of her own senses, reason and rationality. No longer is humanity a slave to the authoritative claims of others. Man can think for himself, and for the first time, in universal knowledge, he meets his fellow as an equal: the informed citizen is born.
Enter Francis Bacon, Newton, Darwin and Einstein! Enter inventions, from James Watt’s steam engine, to Thomas Edison’s refinement of the light bulb to Nikola Tesla’s alternating current to penicillin and the computer. The long history of darkness, ignorance and prejudice is over. Progress has begun.
”…we find the true universals, the SI base units, the reality beyond our senses – and in its dazzling elegance and unfathomable vastness, our universe is far greater, more awe-inspiring, beautiful and mysterious than yours.” —The Modern Mind
Have we, the moderns, lost spirituality? No, we are more spiritual than the people of traditional religions ever were. We are enlightened. The traditions speak of God and divine universals, of heaven and the individual soul. But we find the true universals, the SI base units, the reality beyond our senses – and in its dazzling elegance and unfathomable vastness, our universe is far greater, more awe-inspiring, beautiful and mysterious than yours. Look at those pristine, crystal clear lines that define the order of the cosmos, resting just beneath every seemingly chaotic surface and event. It’s objective. Can you taste that beautiful word? Objective science about objective reality, through which we can obtain our societal and personal objectives.
The individual is no longer defined by authority, but finds herself anew in relation to the laws of nature, laws that we must continuously explore, in an honestly discussing community of equals, where every person has the dignity to find her own path and think for herself.
And we find the real heavens, conquering the skies, crossing space itself, landing on the moon, and bringing salvation through the ingenious advances of medicine – medicine that works; better than any of your prayers ever did. We feed the people of the world; we create untold abundance.
Moses didn’t split and cross the Red Sea; that was a filthy lie they had to tell for people to follow him. But even if he did, we wouldn’t be impressed. Our god, science, the knowledge of truth itself, is still so much greater. Parting the sea? Was that the best you could think of? We cross it in a Boeing jet at one hundred times the speed, having coffee, with no blisters on our feet, and a much better view. And we also abolished slavery, globally. Toodeloo, Moses.
You say that your “god” brings universal order. But all the societies you have created have been full of bizarre contingencies. We create an ordered bureaucracy with rule of law which organizes a highly productive and innovative market which fuels a welfare state. Universal peace? You have been belligerent from day one, religious wars raging to this day. Has there ever been a war about science, even one small skirmish? No.
”Reality is a harsh mistress. But in a way, reality is fair. People tend to get what they deserve.” —The Modern Mind
Grow Up and Face Reality
Perhaps it would be cute if there really was a heaven, if humans really did have souls who lived on after we died, if there was a pre-given meaning for us, inscribed into the very fabric of reality itself. But ultimately, these were only ever fantasies. Humans made them up, either because we lacked the real explanations for things, or because we wanted to believe in them. Lullabies.
But real maturity can face up to reality. Sure, so when I die, I bloody well die. Is that so bad? Do I have to be a cry-baby about it and think I’m going to flutter around in the skies with grandma and a gilded harp? Sure, so the universe is a dead machine that is, always was, and always will be ultimately blind and indifferent to me and all of humanity. Okay, that’s alright. Just face it and it doesn’t get scary. Actually it feels fresh, clear and good in a way. Either way, it’s still the truth, the only one you’ll ever get. So just deal with it and get on with your life.
I can understand that people in the past who really didn’t know any better believed all sorts of bizarre things. I mean, I would too if I wasn’t taught about science, about the real reality. But actually, to persist, in the face of the modern world and science, with that narcissistic, self-righteous, inbred nonsense about this whole of reality being about you and yourself – is just not cute anymore. It’s hurting people, it’s causing unnecessary moral guilt and prejudices and conflicts, and it’s getting in the way of real progress and the real solutions to our problems.
Yours is a smaller world, for a smaller human being. And actually, in all honesty, your ideas are crap. A universe which has no pre-given meaning, which is just pristine, open meaninglessness and where we ourselves have to create meaning – be it scientific exploration, political struggle, artistic expression or just comfort, love and fun – is so much more exiting. And actually dying, which is just reversing the fact of having been born, is much more comforting than an eternity of self-indulgent harp playing.
Still though, I’m not going to judge you. If you really need that lullaby, go ahead; who am I to pass judgment? Because after all, it’s up to the individual. It’s up to you. And unlike you, I am so certain of my reality, that I don’t feel the need to threaten others with metaphysical coercion (hell) or force anything down their throats with threats of violence. I’m not like you – my universality doesn’t come from the barrel of a gun (which I invented), but from reason and fair debate. What I do insist upon, however, is that everybody gets the best available information so that they can make informed decisions. Nobody should be kept in the dark and forced to believe preposterous things out of ignorance. Everybody should get a fair chance.
But what I cannot forgive, dear compadre, is the use of false scientific authority for dubious purposes and disgusting religious cop-outs: the purple and turquoise glowing “subtle energies” and “quantum healing” of New Age charlatans, always selling us self-help books and worthless gems, always turning our attention away from the real issues of life. Louise Hay, who says cancer is caused by your personal issues and that you can think it away. Deepak Chopra who habitually and ritually rapes quantum physics with his profound-sounding, incoherent nonsense. You just crossed the line, mister. There can be no mercy towards the spread of pseudo-science and cult leaders and proponents of “indigo children” ideas. The predators and hypocrites that create all of this pseudo-science show no mercy for the poor, confused people they fool, exploit and molest – and so they can expect none from me.
Reality is a harsh mistress. But in a way, reality is fair. People tend to get what they deserve. The people who are strong enough to face the truth (and don’t cop out and start navel-gazing the hell out of the universe) will win out in the end. While those losers were on their knees fantasizing about a birthday cake from their gods, or hoping to be “special” with secret magic powers, we were out in the real world and discovered evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics, genetics and computation. We had more fun and our knowledge produces results: real, clear, hard, effective, reliable, repeatable, delicious results. The truth, by logic, rewards those who know the truth. And those who shy away from it, by the same clear logic, are punished.
And when their gods fail them, they come crawling to our modern hospitals, begging for a cure that only painstakingly hard-earned science can grant them. And we patch them up and take responsibility for them. Because somebody has to. Sheesh.
”There is a central flaw to the whole idea of intersubjective verification: namely that it presupposes that each individual is independent of her social context.”
Postmodern Rebels to the Rescue
But wait a minute – say the Romantic 19th century critic, the poststructuralist, the critical social theorist, the counter-culture movement and the deep ecologist and the intellectual hipster queer feminist – if your claim on reality is based on intersubjective verifiability, shouldn’t all perspectives be included and get a voice?
There is a central flaw to the whole idea of intersubjective verification: namely that it presupposes that each individual is independent of her social context. But what if something in that context affects all the individuals present, so that they all verify something that, under different circumstances, would be seen as false? There are things like common language, social hierarchies, peer pressure, hidden or unaware assumptions, prejudices and economic interests. All of these shape the context within which any intersubjective verification can be made: thus shaping what is taken to be “the truth”. And these things don’t show up in any haphazard manner: they follow clear patterns, repeatedly and systematically excluding some voices, truths and perspectives. And the most absurd, violent and oppressive beliefs are hailed as intersubjectively verified truths, because we’re all in it. Surely we can’t all be wrong? Yes, mister President, we can.
If your truth is so universal, how come it only really makes sense from a modern, educated, middle class (often white and male) perspective? Not that I argue with the specific results of science – if you drop a rock, it falls, I agree, and if a medicine works, it works – but how come your modern, universal worldview has oppressed so many people and animals?
”…cultures around the world are taking heavy hits as they face an endless onslaught of commercialization, instrumentalization, bureaucratization and social degradation. Are those just road kill on the path to the universal truth[?]” —The Postmodern Mind
You Call that Enlightenment?
Let’s start with indigenous cultures. So when modern civilization showed up at Greenland and “civilized” the Inuits (by the hand of those pesky Danes), their culture crumbled like a house of cards. Unbelievable misery ensued and many of them became alcoholics at the very bottom of Danish “modern” society. If you go a little farther back in time, the Europeans consciously and deliberately conquered and exploited others in the name of civilization and modernity, claiming that this was the scientifically supported order of things. But even if you don’t go back to colonialism, today most indigenous and traditional cultures around the world are taking heavy hits as they face an endless onslaught of commercialization, instrumentalization, bureaucratization and social degradation. Are those just road kill on the path to the universal truth you say you found in a high school physics class?
Or how about the process of modernization itself. You said there are no science wars. But did you ever notice there are other wars going on, stemming directly from the vanity of the modern project? Look at how China and the Soviet Union modernized – millions and millions of people died. Oh, that wasn’t real modernization? Only Western modernization is real? They did become modern countries, you know. And what about the US, if it’s so enlightened, how come its black book of human rights abuses is so thick? Those victims don’t get a say in the universal truth found in chemistry 101? Speaking of chemistry, did you know that the British Empire started using chemical dyes and then instantly collapsed the Indian indigo cloth dye market – that the Empire had created – and let millions starve to death? Oh, that wasn’t real modernity either, was it? How about the Indian traditional society, they don’t get a say on this? Do you know that the biggest and bloodiest war going on right now is in the Congo? A long-term result of some of the worst atrocities in recorded history, committed by enlightened, modern Westerners who used their oh-so-hailed rationality to force native Africans to produce cocoa and rubber instead of food so that you can enjoy that delicious fine Belgian chocolate. Have you thought about that? Oh, and where do the minerals in your Smartphone come from?
And if every individual is being freed by this universal order of enlightenment that you are so graciously sharing with the rest of the world, how come a Bangladeshi female semi-slave made the shirt you are wearing, not under direct threat perhaps, but lest her kids be prostituted to Western tourists? Once she does work at the sweatshop, though, she is physically threatened – and her physical health is certainly compromised. What a beautiful universal order that is. Good thing we can continuously check in on it intersubjectively and verify that her life still sucks.
”…you only ever have your subjective experience of things-as-they-are, always in right-this-moment. And that’s the only ‘objective’ reality you ever really get.” —The Postmodern Mind
Do You Really Think Your So Called “Objective” Science Cuts It?
Or how about the patients? Modern medicine is powerful, you’re right. Vaccines are good, most of the time. But the history of modern medicine is a marathon of abuses by doctors who were convinced they had objective science on their side. How much power have they not misused to lobotomize and lock up and castrate people – until political, not scientific, currents in society changed? Oh, those patients were weak and crazy. They don’t get a perspective on universal truth, of course.
And how come this universal intersubjectivity always makes the men right and leaves the women out? I mean, you really have to work hard to find the women in the history of science.
And how come, with these super-objective sciences, that the paradigms keep shifting every generation or so, depending on who wins the academic power struggles? You go from a Newtonian universe to Einstein’s universe, and now Einstein turned out to be wrong about quantum physics, and the universe really does do “spooky things at a distance” after all –and God plays a whole lot of quantum dice. Everyone is so sure of themselves, that they have the real reality, that they are being objective, but all the time they turn out to be wrong – their understanding again and again found to be more bound by their culture, their time and their own interests, than anybody had expected. Not so universal, after all, it is?
What about verifying stuff that is beyond someone’s understanding in terms of education, stage of cognitive complexity, or access to information? I mean – what if people do not verify some great discovery simply because they are too stupid, afraid or invested in some other idea? Did that ever happen? Is it still happening all over science? You betcha.
And when the scientific community does agree on stuff, does it make a difference that most of them are recruited from more or less the same strata in society? Wouldn’t they ask other questions if they came from other groups, with other interests? And how about big pharma, the meat industry, the sugar industry and the tobacco industry? Suppose any of these little cuties ever affected science; this holy, objective, super-effective effectiveness to which all strong no-bullshit people like yourself are so committed?
And who gets to say what is “effective” anyway? What if I have the best method? And the results are many times more effective “per dollar spent” than your method – at killing Jews. Oh, you think killing Jews is bad? That’s your opinion. I’m looking at the facts, yo. And it just so happens, that I am objectively right and you are wrong. My method is more effective. Science says. Right.
The world, my dear modernista, before it ever becomes “objective” science, is phenomenological. First and foremost, you only ever have your subjective experience of things-as-they-are, always in right-this-moment. And that’s the only “objective” reality you ever really get.
And the phenomenological experience of reality is always bound by social constructions. You can’t ever reach the “real” reality by anything but the use of symbols: if you look at a chair, the moment you see it, you interpret it as a chair – which is a symbol, not an “objective reality”.
Even an idea in physics, such as the hydrogen atom, is only accessible to you through the use of socially constructed symbols. No matter how many university credits you get in physics, or if you win a Nobel Prize, you still only ever get to understand the world through symbols that others have taught you. And, again, those symbols are not a direct link to objective reality. It’s just that some symbols turn out to be more useful metaphors for describing the patterns of relations between other symbols. That’s it. You’ve been living the illusion that you’re beyond illusions.
”You simply take the leap of faith, that there really is a grey, colorless machine-world out there, with one Truth, One Universal Existence in the Non-Eyes of the Non-God.” —The Postmodern Mind
So you Consider yourself Secular? Try again
You say you’ve matured and killed God, that you’ve grown out of it. But I, the postmodern mind, find you as a helplessly god-fearing believer. This is because you think that there is an “objective” view from nowhere, a universal, grey background reality that never depends on anyone’s perspective. But where exactly do you find this reality, other than as a subset of your own subjective experience and your symbols, which other people have taught you in school? How do you really get beyond your own perspective, created by you in interaction with others? Mind if I ask?
Oh, you persist? You just know it’s there, don’t you? You can’t see it, touch it, or feel it, beyond your own subjectivity, or beyond the symbols, but you fiercely… What’s that word? Yes, you believe it. You simply take the leap of faith, that there really is a grey, colorless machine-world out there, with one Truth, One Universal Existence in the Non-Eyes of the Non-God.
Yep, there you have it. You never stopped believing in God, you punk. You only pushed Him backstage by means of a simple negation. But that negation still posits a God. You’re still doing the same move as Newton and Descartes did: except they actually admitted that they assumed that reality was made possible by the eyes of God. You didn’t kill God; you hid him away.
You’ve been sitting in His holy lap this entire time. But your Non-God with a “view from nowhere” is just utter nonsense. It is a religious belief and nothing else. And from that “objective” position, which is, and only ever was, a filthy lie – you have been objectifying and instrumentalizing the world, justifying a giant extraction project where you get to exploit everything as your legally owned resources. It’s disgraceful, dishonest and deeply harmful.
”All ‘objective’ analysis says that we’re running major risks, but still you’re not really responding, busy as you are wearing a suit and all and making money, stacking stuff in a villa.” —The Postmodern Mind
Is that Progress?
Now, tell me again. All scientific evidence points to a simple fact: that humans are animals like any other species. That means that a pig or a cow is as valuable as a little kid. It is undeniably so, from a natural scientific perspective. There is really no controversy here. So tell me exactly, how your universal science justifies that you let sixty billion land animals many of whom correspond to billions of human children – be enslaved, tortured and slit up with knives every year; to be condemned without trial, to die by the fork. Explain to me exactly, how that is “progress in the light of universal science”. Tell me again, about your universally valid perspective, about how beautifully intersubjectively verifiable it all is. Didn’t think so.
And this civilization you’ve built. You bragged a while ago about being better than Moses, with your Boeing jet and all. But Moses didn’t sink the Maldives into the ocean by means of global warming. You’re managing to do that, not least with the help of the jet plane’s CO2-emissions. And “under the sea” isn’t a very interesting place to live anymore – because you killed all the fish and other aquatic animals, over a trillion a year. Of that, Moses is innocent and you are guilty as charged. Fish have pretty advanced sensory experiences, you know. And you’re letting them die really cruel deaths en masse. In your enlightened objectivity, you then polluted the rest of the sea so that you could have more plastic bags for the snacks you’re eating while watching TV and playing video games.
You do realize that the civilization you’ve built is not sustainable anyway, don’t you? All “objective” analysis says that we’re running major risks, but still you’re not really responding, busy as you are wearing a suit and all and making money, stacking stuff in a villa. Serious things. Responsible things.
”…what did you expect? To create free expression and institutions that support critical thinking – and that nobody would ever go beyond you, ever speak against you?” —The Postmodern Mind
You Created Me, But Now I’m Going to End you
“SHUT UP! Shut up, you shit-cunt!! Or I’ll split your skull open and watch your disgusting relativist, moralistic, snob-hipster brains smear the street!”
Whoa, whoa! Modernism, is that you? Where have you been? You look awfully rugged. Have you been drinking? Now, will you please put that crowbar down. Slowly, where I can see it. Listen, even if you do split my head open, I’ll just end up looking like a Picasso, and in my death, my multi-perspectival critique of your worldview will prevail again. It ain’t worth it.
“Don’t you say another word. I’ve been nice. I’ve been listening to your rotten shit for a long time – and I know your kind all too well. You’re one of those people who just talk and talk, and you’re not really out to help anyone. You’re just out to relativize everything and score cheap moralistic points on ME while living off the society THAT I CREATED for you. And then YOU showed up and turned it into a decadent fuckfest of pretentious ‘modern art’ and irony and self-flattery and almost no rigid science or results, and YOU keep getting all the credit. But I am an individual who can think for myself, and I won’t fall for your sophistry.”
That’s right, you did create me. My multiplistic, postmodern perspective simply wouldn’t be possible without your hard work and centuries of modern progress. And you’re right, I’m often doing better, in terms of privileges and status, than you are, not least because I tend to understand the cultural and psychological aspects of the world better than you do. And I do generally get to score the moral goals and come off as more sophisticated.
But then again, what did you expect? To create free expression and institutions that support critical thinking – and that nobody would ever go beyond you, ever speak against you? That I would sit there like a good schoolgirl and be grateful for your alienating, soulless, mindless, hypocritical and oppressive society? That I would watch reality soaps and play your sports and computer games and never ask another question? Thanks for the offer, but fuck you very much. Weren’t you the one who said that whoever can deal with reality the most proficiently should win? Well, here it is for you: you’re on the losing side of history.
And I realize that this may be a bad time to say this, but you’re not actually an individual with independent thoughts. You’re really just acting out the structural relations inherent to society, and the true reason that you are reacting this way has little to do with your own faculties as an independent thinker. You don’t have a “self” in that sense; you’re not making choices, only being like people in your position in society generally are. These are just structures and properties of the cultural system. So you didn’t just keep God, you kept the soul, and you built your whole life around it, just renaming it “the individual”.
Some poor modernistas even believe that they have a free will tied to this “individual”. Are you one of them? How cute, but silly you, weren’t you supposed to be all scientific? How does that work in a mechanistic, objective universe where everything can be explained by cause and effect? (Okay, granted, some of you may have read Daniel Dennett’s more sophisticated case for free will in a deterministic universe, but even then there are unresolved issues.)
You just assumed, no, you – and there’s that word again – believed, that you had some kind of individual will making all those “rational” decisions. Why don’t you just come out of the closet alright, you zealous believer of metaphysical nonsense and make-believe. Why don’t you just admit that you really don’t have a clue, but that you put your faith in the great Bible of Nature – a book you, come on admit it, haven’t really read but merely put your hand on.
But hey, if you need that lullaby, who am I to judge? What I’m telling you are all things that you, dear modernism, don’t yet understand. But rest assured, your kids probably will when I’m done with them. And then they’ll join me in all kinds of homoerotic extravaganzas, deconstruct your worldview, make awkward dinner conversations and laugh at old grumpy dad, all paid for by you at the nearest liberal arts college.
It’s just that this is bigger than you and your psychological comfort. The way that you limit your perspective to “objective reality” means that all kinds of important aspects of reality get locked out. For instance, if only what is intersubjectively verifiable ever counts as universal, and therefore as real and important, what happens to all of those who cannot partake in the intersubjective discussion? Like the animals – or poorly educated people. You can’t ask the animals, but does that mean they don’t have subjective experience? Your perspective turns everything into one big “object” and it silences so many voices. This opens the way for abuses, as the world is turned into dead, cold resources under your mechanical, exploitative regime.
It will be a solemn pleasure, I can tell you, to watch your colossus of false objectivity and progress crumble and fall under a multiplicity of critical perspectives that will tear it down from all sides and reveal your true nature (yes, I know there’s no “true nature”, it’s a manner of expression). And it is in the cracks and ruins of your world, in a perpetual questioning and criticism, that humanity is truly emancipated.
”…your ideas of science, objectivity and reality are too limited, because they have too much lingering stuff of religions left in every nook and cranny” —The Postmodern Mind
Modernity is not Modern Enough
You see, the problem isn’t that you are too modern, too scientific or too objective. The problem is that you are not nearly modern, scientific or secular enough. It is because your ideas of science, objectivity and reality are too limited, because they have too much lingering stuff of religions left in every nook and cranny, that you keep creating a world of narrow-mindedness and self-deceit. Your “enlightened liberation” and “progress” become vulnerable to any number of hidden, arbitrary, unfair and particularistic power structures. While you say that you are fair and impartial, you in fact end up serving power and oppressing the weak. Systematically, again and again.
Freud was right, to a large extent: there is a lot of unconscious stuff going on. If you look inside your own mind, you will find that this is correct. For instance, modernists have a strong feeling that if you work hard and bow to the Real Hard Reality (the one that your Non-God is watching over with His Holy Eyes of Objectivity), then you will be rewarded by the universe. Or that if you apply yourself enough, you should get to live in the Real World. Or that if you are Really Objective and you plan ahead well, you should get to be the winner – the leader. Or that “smart” people are more deserving.
But, you see, the universe really doesn’t care about you. Nobody gives a shit. It’s not about you. It’s not about your “science” or smarts. You really are thoroughly meaningless, just like you said it yourself (you just failed to take the full consequences of it). And you never get to hit the “bottom line” with “real reality” – it will always be just another story you tell yourself, and you will never have come up with it yourself; it will always be forced upon you by social structures that lie beyond you. Even if you’re the best kid in math class, the universe doesn’t care. It doesn’t budge and disclose itself to you.
Hey, modernista, sorry to break it to you, but there are a few things you need to catch up on. You do know that your science grew directly out of the ancient philosophy and medieval scholastics that you feel so superior to, don’t you? You do know that philosophy didn’t end with you, that you are not the end of history? You do know that your whole worldview and sense of reality will one day look exactly as infantile and stupid as the Old Testament does to you? Indeed, that it already does; that people better informed and more scientifically minded than you, have been laughing at you and ridiculing you for almost two generations already? And you do know, don’t you, that you are guilty of the worst crimes against life and humanity that have ever been committed, all in the name of your superficially understood “progress”?
So that was postmodernity. Exit Newton. Enter Foucault. Michel Foucault, the leading French philosopher of the 1960s and 70s, is perhaps the most emblematic of the innovators of the postmodern cultural code. The philosophically most stringent one is probably Jacques Derrida. Actually, let’s quote Derrida himself:
“Instead of singing the advent of the ideal of liberal democracy and of the capitalist market in the euphoria of the end of history, instead of celebrating the ‘end of ideologies’ and the end of the great emancipatory discourses, let us never neglect this obvious macroscopic fact, made up of innumerable singular sites of suffering: no degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before, in absolute figures, have so many men, women and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on the earth.”
Derrida, J., 1993. Spectres of Marx. New York: Routledge, p. 85.
But today, of course, a lot of people are “installing” the postmodern code without ever having heard of these philosophers. And you can pretty much install it even without any philosophical underpinnings to speak of, like the case of Noam Chomsky (who of course knows a lot of philosophy, but, as you may know, despises “French theory” and tends to criticize US foreign policy without much philosophical commentary.)
As you can see, postmodernism follows a similar pattern as that of the Axial traditions: they both criticize the former stage from a cultural or philosophical standpoint, pointing out their inherent inconsistencies – and the negative consequences of these. They are both a kind of “moral” projects, seeking to reform society by critical thinking and self-scrutiny.
”All of your projects have fallen to the ground … we still live in what must be seen as a modern society: still capitalist, alienating, unequal and ecologically disastrous.” —The Metamodern Mind
The Metamodern Mind
Wait a minute – says the metamodernist – if all perspectives are to be included for us to be able to strive towards universal values, how come that the only perspective you pomos (postmodernists) seem to value is your own? Doesn’t the inclusion of all perspectives require the successful accommodation of those perspectives, including the modernism that you so vehemently oppose? You aren’t really taking the other perspectives seriously, if you don’t evaluate, compare and connect them – and give each perspective its due credit.
You say that you go beyond modern society by means of critical thinking, but what do you really offer us? You are against all grand narratives, all stories about how the world at large is evolving, because you find them monolithic and oppressive. You are against all overarching maps of society and reality, because you think they reduce the richness of life and existence too much. And you always strive to be on the critical side of things, always against stuff. And you say you don’t really believe in progress and development, only in changes of cultures, interpretations and power structures.
When you vote you often go with the Left or the Greens – and in some cases with intellectual forms of libertarianism. But whenever any of these powers come close to government, the same modern, bureaucratic structures reemerge.
While you criticize the often exaggerated “objectivity” of modern science, and you have produced some interesting research programs in social science and humanities (such as ethnomethodology, interactionism, discourse analysis, cultural studies, postcolonialism, eco-feminism, queer theory, etc.), you have not really produced a new science equaling the 17th century Scientific Revolution.
And what about the Enlightenment – its ideas inform the constitutions of most countries in the world. You had the 1968 student revolution in France and the counterculture in the US and other countries, authors like Herbert Marcuse and Aldous Huxley leading the fray; but where is your new society?
Increasingly, you have got crammed up at university departments where you write critiques of everything from IMF (International Monetary Fund) reports to pop songs and music videos – but where is the alternative you offer? For a while it was “democratic socialism”, but after 1989 we haven’t really seen any credible claims for it. Then it was “deep ecology”, but the world is industrializing and consuming and modernizing faster than ever. Then you came up with queer feminism and updated versions of radical feminism, which is nice, but nowhere is there any evidence that “breaking the hetero norm” and “crushing patriarchy” bring forth any true revolution, or lead to an otherwise fair society. Frankly, women have been more liberated by the pill and other advances of medicine, than by postmodern theory. And then you have been going on about neoliberalism, which you take to be an evil spirit that has possessed the world, but you have yet to produce any alternative beyond bureaucratic control. Occupy Wall Street didn’t offer more than a buzz. All of your projects have fallen to the ground, without any of them deeply changing society. There have been some shifts, yes, but we still live in what must be seen as a modern society: still capitalist, alienating, unequal and ecologically disastrous.
Let’s look at your pomo heroes. Foucault was good at criticizing modern society, I’ll give you that. But what did he believe in? He wanted to make it legal for adults to have sex with kids (no age limit) and was deeply enthused by the Iranian revolution. He never came up with one useful solution. What about Erich Fromm, this wise guru? He wanted a centralized planning taking over all production, making sure that we only heard classical music on the radio, that a bunch of exceptionally wise people should rule (clearly having himself and folks like Einstein in mind), loved Suzuki (the Japanese Zen teacher who had supported the Japanese regime during the Second World War, giving very Zen accounts of how to poke an eye out with a bayonet) and he despised gay people. I could go on. The point is – as soon as it’s your turn to offer a vision and a new path, your neck is exposed.
”you have to try to construct a synthesis from all that you know from the earlier stages” —The Postmodern Mind
Postmodernity’s Anti-thesis is not enough
The problem you have, dear pomo, is that you fail to construct or suggest anything useful or durable, because you are only truly interested in being an anti-thesis to the existing society.
You don’t truly use a multiplicity of perspectives; your “multiplicity of perspectives” is limited to an epistemological one (views of knowledge and how it is attained) – it is never an ontological multiplicity (viewing reality itself as shifting according to perspectives).
From a metamodern perspective, this is just not enough. You have to make yourself more vulnerable than that: you have to try to construct a synthesis from all that you know from the earlier stages, in order to create a society that solves the three major problems of modern life: the excessive global inequalities, the alienation or neurotic anxieties of modern life, and ecological unsustainability.
This synthesis must of course be open-ended and continuously revised, a proto-synthesis. You have to offer a path to Utopia yourself, and it has to really include the traditional, modern and postmodern – even while knowing that this path will never be the only one or “the right one”. We do it because we have to, even at the very great risk of being wrong.
And this requires that you take all the former stages of development much more seriously: you have to actually deal with the prospect of One Universal Truth, that you harbor and cultivate within yourself a deep, sincere faith (as those of the Axial traditions); you must look for objective truth that we can all agree upon and seek to wield it to engender progress (that modernity put forth); and you must seek to criticize and find all possible cracks and excluded voices in that story (postmodernity).
Every stage of development creates an unending beauty, cavalcades of new truths, new realities, new melodies of the universe. Multiplicity is not the only melody of the cosmos: it plays within a larger orchestra, consisting of unity, universality and faith, all of which are important – and comparable to one another.
”to have solidarity with someone, you must also have solidarity with their perspective.” —The Postmodern Mind
Postmodernity is not Critical or Multiplistic enough
Dear pomo, you have been monolithic in your embrace of multiplicity, narrow-minded in your attempts at open-mindedness, judgmental in your non-judgment, hierarchical in your anti-hierarchy. In a few words, your problem is not that you have been too critical, postmodern and mulitiplistic – you have not been nearly critical, postmodern and multiplistic enough.
If you are so good at taking perspectives and including everybody, how come the modernist showed up at your doorstep, completely destroyed, drunk and with a crowbar? Have you been imperialist and oppressive without noticing it? Have you been using your cognitive and cultural superiority for the sordid pleasures of oppression and making others, in weaker positions, feel helpless and deprived of their sense of self, morality and reality? And have you been doing this while telling yourself that you were defending the weak? If you are justified in this symbolic violence, where then, is the new society you were to bring about?
Here’s what I believe: to have solidarity with someone, you must also have solidarity with their perspective. This means that one must also understand power hierarchies – not just as “evil spirits” in the form of class structures, patriarchy, discourses, etc. to be exorcized with “critical perspectives” – but as differences of developmental stage. And pomos are generally at a higher developmental stage than modernists.
If you deny the differences of developmental stage, you also fail to recognize something important: that to be in position to critique someone, from their own premises, is to act from a position of superiority – from a position of power. Isn’t the realization of privilege at the core of your beliefs? Did you really believe that you were an underdog barking at the powerful? You have been a highly privileged, well-informed elitist kicking downwards all along. You, my dear pomo, armed with vast amounts of cultural capital and superior perspectives, belong to the highest strata of global society, the upper class of late modernity – so you should better acknowledge your privilege and take some responsibility for including the perspectives of your fellow citizens. The pomos are in positions of power, more so than Donald Trump ever was or Vladimir Putin ever will be.
”Listening to a stranger becomes the highest form of jihad.” —The Metamodern Mind
How Metamodernism Beats Postmodernism
The metamodern mind takes all of the earlier perspectives at face value, as real; it’s just that some of them are more real than others. They are ranked, compared and balanced against one another. And for that, one must be able to truly listen to and understand – and to a certain extent agree with – even one’s most bitter enemy. We must learn to listen to another person and to see with her eyes and to merge our reality with hers, to see how her perspective is a real, ontological, part of reality. Listening to a stranger becomes the highest form of jihad.
“You would rank people’s perspectives and put them together in unifying visions to improve society? How arrogant and power hungry you must be! You think there are many realities at once, not just many views of the same reality? How utterly confused and crazed! And you want to define ‘progress’ for society? How dangerous! You seemed to be an okay person for a while, but now that I see where you are going, you fill me with utter disgust!”
Oh, is that you, postmodernism? I thought you might show up here. Well, I don’t mean to be nasty or arrogant, really. It’s just that I am born through you. Everything about you ultimately leads to me. Can’t you see it? I am you. And if you don’t accept my insights, you are still left in the clutches of modernism.
“I am nothing like them! You are like them! Obsessed with rankings and stages and progress and power! But I’m not like you; I will resist, I will critique!”
Listen, if you don’t like what I am saying, and you think that I have regressed to modernism, you are admitting that I am right – i.e. that there are in fact stages of development. Otherwise no “regression” would be possible.
If you want to include all perspectives and treat them fairly, you have to be able to compare them to one another, and see how they are each an important part of reality, and how they fit together. Otherwise you are being condescending and monolithic yourself.
If you want to transcend and leave behind the obsession with hierarchies, you must be able to dispassionately describe hierarchies and relate to them productively. If you resent hierarchies and deny them, you are still in their grip, still obsessed with them. Precisely by demystifying hierarchy we can free ourselves from this obsession.
If you want to be humble and self-critical, isn’t it more humble to assume that there are hierarchical stages beyond your own, that there are people with worldviews that would trump your own on its own premises, even people you may know? As indicated earlier in this book, stage theories make for greater epistemological humility.
If you want to be progressive, you have to admit that progress is at least provisionally possible – which then necessitates that you define, at least for the time being, in what direction such progress can and should unfold.
If you see that social reality is constructed, that it is a form of patterned “meta-narrative”, and that there are serious gaps and limitations in that narrative – aren’t you obliged to try to reconstruct it? To create a new story about humanity, society, reality and progress? To suggest a proto-synthesis?
And if you want to include the excluded voices, don’t you need to show at least some solidarity with all perspectives, even the ones you don’t like or that you feel superior to?
I, the metamodern mind, can no longer believe in the postmodern critique of modern society. I see it as lacking in crucial aspects. We must move on. By virtue of its own dialectical logic, by the structure of its symbols and their interrelations and by its inherent self-contradictions, postmodernism is the midwife of metamodernism.
Now let’s get out there and kick some pomo ass.
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, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.