Introduction: A History without Time
Chapter theme song: Time, Hans Zimmer.
Q: What is history?
HF: History is the past. But it can only be told in the present.
Of an infinity of possible stories and interpretations of past events, we somehow conjure up specific histories. Our understanding of these past events propose meaningful sequences; we must guess at thin threads of cause and effect, or at the very least a kind of resonant melody; and we must weave this fabric of meaning through time.
This holds true in the history of our personal lives, in the history of families, tribes and nations, and in the history of the world.
On the lute of history, all possible melodies can be played; some more beautiful and harmonic than others; some in greater resonance with the present and the emerging future.
Some with greater power to explain—beauties, traumas, and potentials.
Some with greater power to enthrall its listener.
Some with greater power to emancipate, to free you from the shackles of your own corner of space-time.
In this book, I claim we’ve been taught the wrong melody. We’re singing it wrong. We’re in the wrong club, dancing off a cliff.
Q: So how do you know which history to tell? Which is the true history?
HF: We cannot simply tell “the true story”, because that story, in its fullness, remains forever unavailable to us. The “whole true story” would rather constitute the totality of all possible interpretations, connected to an astronomical immensity of causes and events of immeasurable detail, vastness, and complexity.
We do not possess “the eyes of God”, the all-seeing, ultimate perspective-of-all-perspectives. Indeed, it may not even be theoretically possible to “tell the whole truth” or to “see with the eyes of God”, as that would require so much information processing that the heat generated would upset the studied universe and rip any prediction of it to shreds. When the great physicist Laplace, in the early 19th century, famously stipulated a theoretical demon who knows the positions and speeds of all particles, and could thus predict the entirety of the future of the cosmos, he was simply wrong. Such a demon could only self-destruct. The eyes of God belong to no one, not even in theory.
God is dead. Even in theory.
And indeed, Mohammed or Jesus or anyone else, cannot be God’s prophet or mouthpiece, because the same issue applies to the act of communicating the ultimate truth: communication has energy costs, and the ultimate communication would shred the universe to pieces. So God’s prophet is also dead. The voice of God thus belongs to no one.
There is still, however, always a pattern to how and why we tell the histories we do. Despite its many possible interpretations, history is always told non-arbitrarily. We tell the best story we can, given our own limited perspective, which in turn depends on who, when and where we are. We cannot arbitrarily recount the past. By logical necessity, it must be so.
We are thus always somewhere between two impossibilities: the ultimate truth of all things—and complete, utter nonsense. Never can the full truth be reached; nor, however, can we ever speak the ultimate nonsense, no matter how hard we try. Like a Rorschach test of ink dots that still yield an image to the observer, even nonsense is structured. Even the schizophrenic mind, even the dream; it all follows some elusive (but ultimately discernable) order or logic, some pattern. There is only relative distance between harmony and cacophony.
As students of history, we must shape the history told, always filtered through our own limited faculties of knowledge, perspective-taking, and meaning-making. As thinking, breathing beings, we are always-already situated in world history ourselves—at a certain time and position within a certain society. We can only recount and reflect upon the past from our own historical vantage point.
And yet, however, I would claim, that the progression of our knowledge of history is the arduous climb from the depths of relative arbitrariness, of relative nonsense, to relative truth. Some histories told are closer to the truth, and some are closer to utter nonsense. The claim that “Napoleon rode into the Prussian city of Jena in October 1806” is probably more true than “The Mongols were beaten back by the Mamluks of Egypt in 1260 with the aid of superior Mamluk attack penguins”.
And yet, because we structure the past into certain patterns of graspable and delineated events, we are somehow able to cut through the incomprehensible infinitudes of occurrences and weave stories. We can make the past fathomable, relatively non-arbitrary. We make the past come alive in novel ways. We learn from history, and we are reshaped by it. Through this necessary act of vanity, we transcend pure chaos and confusion.
History, then, is always told and studied with one purpose or another. This purpose can be more or less clearly understood and stated. But there is always a purpose of some kind. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be making an effort to uncover and then to tell the story.
And “truth seeking” is never in itself a sufficient purpose: there is an infinite number of possible truths to seek, down to counting grains of sand on the porch. Something other, some religious drive, compels us to seek this particular truth; to cut through time in this particular angle.
In the most general sense, all history writing, all descriptions of the past, share one purpose: to shape the future. And the future isn’t here: we can only believe in it; hence its necessarily religious aspect.
Naturally, nobody can read your history before you have written and published it. Someone, somewhere, is affected, partly transformed—in the future. And their future life courses change, in large or small ways, for better or worse. History must thereby always, necessarily, be directed towards the future. Where else would it be going?
Q: So you want to write a history book to shape the future?
HF: Yes, the purpose of writing and studying history is to shape the future. We use the treasures of the past to enrich the future. I am no exception.
I will be weaving together a new interpretation of “the history of the world”, from a vantage point of what I call the metamodern perspective.
Q: The metamodern perspective?
HF: What we have been taught in school and at universities is a “modern” and/or “postmodern” history. These are immense bodies of work, which cannot simply be replaced by one new book. We will continue to learn from modern and postmodern history writing for ages to come. But they are written from, as I see it, increasingly outdated perspectives.
Metamodernism is another take on reality, humanity and society—one that grows from the living conditions of the information age—and the history of the world looks quite different to the metamodern mind. The writing of such a world history is necessary as a backdrop for the shaping of the future in a metamodern direction, which is, as I will labor to argue and explain, vital for the emerging global civilization to survive and to thrive.
In terms of topics and themes, I have had to be highly selective, needless to say. If I cannot fully tell the “story of the world”, at least I can move as nimbly as possible between carefully selected themes in history. I am recounting a history of the world, yes, but I am also, and primarily, displaying a metamodern perspective on history, its patterns and directions. I am commenting on previously known events—but in a new light, cutting through the chaos with new angles, with new suggested conclusions.
Q: So there are no predecessors to this work?
HF: I wouldn’t exactly say that.
There are theories going back to the 19th and even 18th centuries which are echoed in these pages. And there are writers, historians, and philosophers who have covered different aspects of the perspective I offer in the current volume, often with greater skill and rigor than I can muster. Jean Gebser’s work comes to mind. More recently, Robert Wright has been cutting some fascinating paths through history which resonate with my own work—in turn referencing numerous predecessors. And then there’s the whole Big History discourse, not to mention Global History, both of which we’ll get back to.
But then again, none of these put together this exact theory—and none of them land in quite the same conclusion about history’s direction. However, to get my argument and theory up and running, I have of course relied upon findings and accounts of mainstream Modern and Postmodern historians—like Hobsbawm, Toynbee, and Braudel—as well as findings from archeology, anthropology, sociology, and so on.
Q: Why, really, are you doing this?
HF: I am among the people who have been touched by a fire of the soul. I make no apologies for this. I seek to light the same—or a corresponding—flame in your heart.
The flame of revolution.
I feel that we must take a certain general direction of development of the world-system, of our multiplicity of interrelated cultures, of humanity and her beyond. “The world-soul” needs to be reconstituted, reprogrammed. We must change the dominant stories about the world and our place in it. This is an issue of great moral significance, as you will hopefully see.
I seek to contribute to bringing about a metamodern world revolution, and I am looking for fellow revolutionaries—or rather, what I call co-creators, “those who write new values on new tablets”.
But to replace the modern world with a metamodern world, we must understand the pattern of such revolutions. And it’s not anything like a Jacobin or Bolshevik revolution. We’re looking for what I call “non-linear revolutionaries”. Again, they taught you history all wrong in school.
Or, if you will allow me to switch back to an earlier metaphor: History is not arbitrary, and it plays in certain discernable melodies. Many different melodies are possible to hear. I don’t purport to be offering the only melody of history; only one that I think is particularly beautiful and powerful at this time and place. The melody is still playing at this point in history. So the issue here is to share that melody with you so that you may learn an instrument—whichever suits you best given your talents and circumstances—and then play the next note in the great song of history. And that may be a good way of spending one’s lifetime.
Of course, the next note to be played is not determined. The melody isn’t written down; but if you’ve heard the melody playing thus far, you may be able to “hear” what next note the melody “needs”. I cannot teach you to play the instrument or decide which note to play, but my hope is that—if enough people hear a similar melody, and each decides to play the next few notes—perhaps we can make the next few steps of our world’s evolution more harmonious and beautiful.
Hence, you could say, I’m looking for a cocreated revolutionary orchestra to play the next few notes of this great song. Nobody directs the orchestra; no prophet is there to guide us. But if we hear a similar melody, our creative efforts can flow together in richer resonance. And new melodies can be conceived, played on new instruments and on new musical scales entirely.
Come to think of it, actually, we’re not quite looking for a revolution.
We are looking for a new renaissance; a rebirth of the human mind and spirit—a reintegration of earlier forms of culture and civilization, a marriage of the perennial and the edge of the future. The metamodern renaissance spans across the humanities, the liberal arts, the sciences, our work life and industries, our norms and everyday life, our inner depths, and our structures of economy and governance. As we get into it, we shall discover that metamodernism has a deeper kinship with the Renaissance than with any particular political or technological revolution.
Q: Charming. So what revolutions are you talking about?
HF: There are, I believe, six hidden patterns of history: six “meta-memes”; each of which constitutes a fundamental revolution—or renaissance—of culture. That is the main thesis of this book.
Once you have seen these patterns, and their inherent logic, you cannot “unsee” them (until, of course, another better explanatory model shows up and rips this one to shreds, which is, after all, likely to happen sooner rather than later). There is a unifying logic to how they function and progress, and yet each of the metamemes is distinct and has its own logic.
The six metamemes offer explanatory power. They offer order. They offer a better understanding of (and thus empathy towards) other people. And they point us in certain directions of development. They guide us. Hey, they even offer some peace of mind and a bit of hope. And they lead to a dazzling conclusion: a fundamental revolt against the modern world.
But a playful revolt. A renaissance of exploration and new potentials.
Q: The six patterns are hidden?
HF: These six patterns aren’t truly hidden. It’s just that we have become accustomed to studying history without coherent frameworks that order the events into larger wholes. They are, as it were, hidden in plain sight.
I call these six hidden patterns “metamemes” (more on this soon), and they are named, in order of appearance:
Our main issue is to understand each of these on a deep, intuitive level.
The last of these patterns, Metamodern, is still emerging. I will still try to describe it, as I believe some of its inherent logic is already discernable—and this is highly relevant knowledge to any co-creator of a non-linear world revolution.
Q: So there is a spirit of evolution, a force that propels the direction of history, from the big bang, through cosmological history, through biological evolution, and then through cultural stages of evolution, driving the universe towards a goal of unification?
HF: Actually, no.
Or rather, we can and should remain agnostic about any such force. The moment we start believing in such an entity, and that we can somehow intuitively or intellectually tap into this force in service of its purpose, we become tunnel-visioned “true believers”, fanatics set on a particular direction of history and thus blind to the multiplicity of perspectives and the richness, contradictions, and paradoxes of history. We implicitly take ourselves to be prophets, speaking the word of God, which—again—belongs to no one: An unforgivable vanity, a cardinal sin.
Rather than aligning ourselves with “the force that propels history”, we should “listen to the melodies of the future”. That can still involve listening intuitively, following our hearts. But even the subtle whispers of the heart do not grant us knowledge of where history is going.
Evolution doesn’t look forward and push itself towards a goal or end or “singularity” or what the Catholic mystic Teilhard de Chardin called the “Omega Point”. It would be more accurate to say that evolution “stumbles backwards”; it doesn’t really see where it is going, or why.
Take something like the Russian Empire—there is little if any apparent connection between the presumably Viking (or Varangian) chieftain Rurik’s establishment of Novgorod in 862, the rise and fall of the Kievan Rus, the regrouping of post-Mongol Russian power around Moscow, the purges of the nobility under Ivan the Terrible, the establishment of Saint Petersburg under Peter the Great and the thousands that died in the process, and the defeat at the Crimean War, and the royal court being enthralled by the crazed faith healer Rasputin in the early 20th century—and the emergence of the Soviet Union and its role in the Cold War, and its collapse some 80 years later, with resulting stagnation and failed transitions to liberal capitalism. If there has indeed been a directionality and pattern to this evolution, it has certainly been one full of contradictions, blunders and meaningless failures and mistakes. Catherine the Great, a German-born ruler who corresponded with Voltaire and embraced the Enlightenment, later turned her back entirely on the Enlightenment ideals, in the wake of the French Revolution. She pivoted—as did her evolving country.
The whole thing doesn’t “see where it’s going”. Today’s Russia stumbled itself into existence through failures, tragedies, and paradoxes—through twists and turns of human ingenuity, vanity, tragedy, and sheer stupidity. As did all of the world’s nations. Crash, boom, bang, oops—death, decay, suffering untold. Tragedies and cruel jokes at the expense of the human spirit. Absolute absurdity. And in the midst of it all: creation—the emergence of the utterly unexpected, the stumbled-upon.
Simply put: directionality and pattern do not presuppose a pre-given purpose. Historical evolution has recognizable patterns and directions, but probably no “end-goal” or “telos”. And if it has no end-goal, it has no particular “destiny”, either.
To the extent that we wish to shape the future with this book, we need to be sincere interpreters and analysts, but only ironic prophets.
If there is indeed a spirit of evolution that guides this story, we must conclude that it is a very clumsy and incompetent one. It’s all over the place, working in “mysterious ways” to say the least. And yet, with a bird’s eye view, we can also conclude that it has not stumbled entirely at random. Even the chaotic and grim history of Russia has emerged through epochs that follow certain cultural patterns: the metamemes.
Q: Um, okay. So when did these metameme periods happen?
HF: Wrong question. Metamemes aren’t what you think. They’re not like Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and so on.
The philosopher Theodor Adorno famously argued that “modernity is a qualitative, not a chronological category”. What he meant by that is that it’s not really meaningful to try to understand at what particular time the world “became modern”—the answer to this will vary depending on the context. Much of the world still today isn’t modern in a meaningful sense. Rather, one must struggle to understand why modernity emerged, through which mechanisms, which properties delineate it from non-modernity or pre-modernity. That would be the only usable explanation, because that’s what has real explanatory, and, ultimately, predictive power. That’s also how the classical sociologists of the late 19th century approached the study of modern society.
I couldn’t agree more, dear Adorno. And modernity is one of the six metamemes. None of the metamemes are “chronological categories”. They’re not periods. They’re not eras. They’re not epochs. They are something else.
They are certain patterns of history—certain qualities, certain properties, certain logics, certain dynamics. They are large patterns-of-patterns; they are overarching patterns-that-connect. As such, metamemes stretch across and through any crude periodization we may conjure up. They slip through any attempt to catch them chronologically, to freeze them in time.
Think about it; the events of world history have nothing—or very little—to do with the year numbers and epochs we ascribe to them. Sure, years give us intervals of time, but beyond that, epochs and years are completely arbitrary. They are, in that sense, unscientific—because they offer no explanatory or predictive power. They are fancies, little more.
The metamemes are qualitative categories. That is to say, you can describe how they work. What they do. What they are. Now that is truly an explanation. Saying something is “medieval” or that it happened in 1212, is not.
And for this reason, this will be a quite unconventional history of the world. I will rely on sequences and years, yes, on historical time and geographical space. But that is not the focus. I am offering you a qualitative understanding of the history of the world, a history of the patterns that drive and shape the cultural world; if you will, a history without time.
Q: Okay, Hanzi. Fair enough. So you want to try out a new way of telling the history of the world because you think this could bring about a world revolution (or renaissance). I can see how that would excite you and make your insignificant little speck of a life seem worthwhile, perhaps even compensate for a few childhood traumas and belittlements that life has heaped on you. Good luck with that.
But I still don’t quite get how you view this “history without time”—I mean, what is history if not a series of events in time? Please answer me directly: What is history?
HF: Nice punch. Indeed, what is world history?
It’s not primarily, as Marx and Engels would have us believe, the history of classes and their struggle against each other.
Nor is it the history of kings and queens.
It’s not the history of nations, or even cycles of civilizations, their ebbs and flows, their rise, decay, and downfall.
It’s not the history of the everyday life of living, breathing human beings.
It’s not the progress of technology in itself.
It’s not a series of events, what is sometimes called “one damned thing after another” (ODTAA).
And it’s definitely not the history of human races and their struggle to the death, race against race.
It’s not even the history of humanity as a whole, of the species homo sapiens. What a silly world history that would be.
Human history, the history of the world, what is commonly known as “cultural history”, is the history of memes.
This is, need I add, an informational view of history. We are answering the question: What structures and drives the elements of information? That’s what drives history; which is to say, it is what explains and connects the events. Information is the element that coordinates human actions, and it thus guides human events, including human responses to natural events.
When the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire wrote his reflection on the tsunami that had hit Lisbon in 1755, he changed the human response to it: perhaps it was not, as commonly believed, a punishment from God; perhaps it was just a meaningless natural event. In his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, Voltaire notes:
“’If it be true,’ they said, ‘that whatever is, is right, it follows that human nature is not fallen.
If the order of things requires that everything should be as it is, then human nature has not been corrupted, and consequently has no need for a Redeemer.
if the miseries of individuals are merely the by-product of this general and necessary order,
then we are nothing more than cogs which serve to keep the great machine in motion; we are no more precious in the eyes of God than the animals by which we are devoured.”
A new metameme was emerging to challenge the old one, with new and real consequences for human action. So let us focus on memes. Look at it this way.
The history of the physical world is cosmology. The history of the planet is geology. Geological properties can only emerge within a larger cosmological story. The history of life, this self-organization of complex, sentient entities, is biology. Life can only play out in some select corners of the universe, where goldilocks conditions allow it, in an interplay with geological settings. Biology carries within itself molecular patterns that we call genes. Biology, or natural history, is the history of genes and their evolutionary struggle.
Cultural history, what we usually call just “history”, is yet another level up of emergence and abstraction. It exists within a biological framework.[i] You need biological creatures with malleable bodies in which memes can be encoded. Memes are patterns that are imprinted, not into the molecules of the creature, their DNA, but into some more changeable part of the body, like connections between nerve cells. Memes are memories, learned skills and crafts, stories, ideas, taken-for-granted assumptions, languages. They are transferrable patterns which are imprinted in a more abstract layer of bodily configurations (as compared to DNA). And they transfer through communication and imitation.
The word “meme” took on a life of its own after Richard Dawkins introduced it a while ago. He juxtaposed it with “gene”. It’s a good move. Memes are like ghosts-of-abstraction which possess the biological bodies of their carriers. They emerge through ongoing interactions between human beings, and then take over those same human beings and control the movements of their bodies, shaping very specific patterns of these. Biologically, I can be a light-skinned homo sapiens with green irises and long legs. Culturally, I can be a Russian-speaking, socialist ballet dancer. Through the medium of my biological body, memes “remote-control” me and make me do pirouettes for the glory of Stalin. When I open my mouth to speak, my tongue will move in a specifically Russian manner. I am a memetic creature as much as I am a genetic one—just as much as I am a physical object with a certain mass, speed and position in space-time.
Cultural history must thereby, necessarily, be the history of how all memes emerge, how they struggle, combine, and evolve, and how they steer the world. Because culture consists of memes. Whereas genes can only be transferred and experimented with through new generations, through new bodies (with some leeway for epigenetic factors, i.e. how genes are turned on and off during a lifetime), memes can evolve much more quickly and according to another logic entirely. And that logic is culture, and its development is “history”.
Memes are more malleable than genes. We cannot all get brown eyes and black hair, but we can all learn at least some Swahili, if exposed to it. Given, of course, that we have the biological prerequisites for the meme to transfer to us (brain, ears, tongue, etc.).
Or look at it this way, from the negative: Is it possible to write a piece of history without discussing matters of class? Yes. Without describing the doings of kings and queens? Yes. Without relating to nations? Yes. But is it possible to discuss any cultural history without relating to memes? No. Because memes are the most basic category of history.
And metamemes are the fundamental patterns of the memes themselves. The memes don’t emerge independently, but in relation to each other. They emerge as functions of larger, more fundamental, metamemes.
Thus, metamemes are patterns-of-cultural-patterns.
Q: How then is this not a history of humanity? Memes are about humans and the things we do. Humans have culture!
HF: Okay, so it is and isn’t. Humans have more complexly malleable bodies than other known creatures, and thus they happen to currently be the main carriers of cultural memes on our planet. Memes evolve primarily within and through humans. But hey, other animals have memes too. Researchers have shown that whales in the South Pacific have different songs that spread as fashions over time. Those are memes, too.
There is nothing special or chosen about homo sapiens per se. It might as well have been other creatures that were the main substrate of memetic evolution—and who knows, it probably will be sometime in the future. Octopuses come to mind; maybe (if bioengineering is applied) larger brains can be grown in those squishy wet things than in our rigid skulls. Maybe they can be a good seed for a superior substrate for memetic evolution, and maybe one day human history will appear as trivial as whale songs travelling across the South Pacific.
So the main juxtaposition is not humanity versus nature, or humans versus non-human animals. What a stupid, arbitrary, illogical division that would be! The main juxtaposition is between two different levels of emergence: genes and memes. Biology and culture. Genes come before memes. Biology contains culture, even as culture can operate upon and reshape biology (through selective breeding, genetic manipulation, food and lifestyles, and so on). Human biology is not, as many have claimed “a constant”; it just evolves slower and by another logic. But memes are their own thing; they escape the limits of genetic evolution.
Memes create something beyond biology: imagined worlds of culture, religions, philosophies, paradigms, stories about the universe, grand dramas, narratives[ii].
If we are, then, to go beyond our speciesist narcissism, and grow the fuck up, we need to start telling history like it is: not about humanity, but about memes. Humanity is only interesting because it happens to be good at carrying and thus generating memes, so that cultural evolution is sparked. What a spark, though!
If this seems a bit gloomy—if we feel a little less species-special—there is a silver lining to it. Namely, we’re off the hook in terms of species-specific guilt vis-à-vis the biosphere as a whole. It’s not that humanity is bad and nature is good. It’s that nature evolves into meme-carrying creatures, and some memes tend to wreck their own biological substrate. That’s it. Ecological disaster can happen for a number of reasons; the present crisis has emerged because memes follow another logic than ecological systems do. Our cultural evolution is shredding the basis of its own biological substrate.
The memes can sustain their evolution only by somehow adapting to and accounting for ecological systems. The memes must either include the biosphere, or perish. This would have occurred even if memes evolved most rapidly through some other biological substrate, through another species. So if humanity is not special, this means we’re not “special good or bad”.
That being said, yes, we shall primarily study human history in this book. And some biological properties that are particular to humans shape how our particular sequences of memes play out.
Q: I get it. You have a morbid fascination with the death of human civilization. You hate humanity.
HF: I truly don’t. That’s not what I said.
I love humanity. Hey, I love doggity and magpiety as well. I’m just not as obsessed with it. I find no particular reason to make “this one cloud of genetic material whose carriers can often-but-not-always mate with each other and reproduce” into a basic assumed category of reality and science. I find no particular reason to base the study of history upon this… genetic category.
Think about it. Does it make sense to let a biological category define the full scope of cultural history? “Humanity” in itself is just a meme, an idea in the head of many humans. We can change that idea for something else, something more universal, something that explains stuff better and helps us create deeper meaning and pursue more universally solid goals. And such a category is, I believe, the history of memes.
Sounds dry? You would rather have a human history of dreams, of hopes, of striving, of flesh and blood and all-too-human passions and agency, than one of abstract memes? The point is that memes are the cultural crystallization of all of these things. It is, I contend, by understanding the metamemes, that we most succinctly fathom the adventures and sorrows of the human spirit.
This book is a revolt against modernity. Hopefully, though, not a blast from the past (as “the integral traditionalists” would have it), but a blast from the future; a future that also redefines and reintegrates the past in novel ways.
It’s also, in a sense, a revolt against “the humanities” as taught at our universities, and against the modern “religion” of humanism, which places ”humanity” and the singular human being, at the center of all things. Why should the non-natural sciences, “the humanities”, philosophy and history and so on, be tied to a certain biological species? Surely, truth and meaning must exist beyond such confines?
Some people call this position of mine “posthumanism”, “anti-speciesism”, “anti-anthropocentrism” and so on. I just call it common sense. I don’t have the burden of proof here. If you want to obsess about humanity and its God-chosen specialness, the burden of proof is on you. Humanity is special because people went to the moon? Because Beethoven wrote Für Elise? Says who? According to what judge? You prove it.
Q: And… what exactly does this have to do with metamemes?
HF: It is important to decenter the view from “humanity”, because our evolution must travel beyond humanity, if humanity is to survive (along with lots of other lifeforms). So the focus on humanity must take a backseat and allow us identify with a wider world of emergent properties.
Q: So we identify with the larger biosphere instead of humanity, as deep ecologists have proposed? Or perhaps even with a larger cosmological evolution?
HF: Um, not exactly. There’s a lot of truth to that, but it won’t quite cut it.
The issue is that culture is emergent from the biosphere, yes, and emergent from a larger cosmological context, yes—but it is not reducible to it. So identifying with the biosphere as a whole leaves us with few answers about how humans should organize their societies, how they should find meaning in the world, how they should relate to one another, and so forth.
Culture is its own thing. Technology is its own thing. We need to reconnect them to the biosphere, yes, but that doesn’t exhaust the answer. We must understand their internal logic, and thus the logic of how they have evolved.
Q: So are metamemes the same as “memeplexes”?
HF: What some writers call a memeplex is any large pattern of memes. I don’t use the term so much, because it gets too vague. The metamemes are a subsection of the memeplexes; they are the patterns of how cultures can be described in developmental terms; if you will, in developmental stages. Metamemes are specifically defined, very large memeplexes; they evolve in a recognizable and logical sequence (hence “developmental”).
Here’s an example. A meme could be ballet. Did any tribal culture, anywhere in the world, ever generate a dance that resembles ballet? No. They produce an incredible array of dances and prances and rituals, but no ballet. Why? Because ballet is “Western”? Well, then, why did no medieval or even renaissance European societies ever produce ballet dances?
No. Ballet is not tied to geography, ethnicity, or race. The answer is that ballet is Modern. It is generated under the logic of the Modern metameme.
Actually, ballet sprung out of fencing and the court society centered and modelled on early Modern France. Like a racing car, ballet is based upon removing all but the most necessary movements. In a sense, it is ultimately utilitarian. That is what creates its elegance. It is Ockham’s razor applied to the movements of the human body. It is the Enlightenment paradigm embodied in motion.
The chance of ballet emerging in a pre-Modern context is simply zero. Zero. Ballet did not come about arbitrarily. Sure, there are arbitrary elements to it which were shaped by individual people, but there are many prerequisites specific to early Modern life that make possible for something like ballet to pop into existence. Ballet isn’t Animistic (like tribal hunter-gatherer societies); it’s Modern. No Ockham’s razor, no Enlightenment, no ballet.
Q: Um, there are some things to explain there. But first of all, this sounds pretty racist to me. You’re saying that Western ballet is better and “more advanced” than all the tribal dances in the world. Who are you to say? Good grief. This developmental perspective of “metamemes” can really make some Western people quite blind. Isn’t the measure of “more advanced” in itself your narrow Western bias? You think, like in the 19th century, that Europeans, white men, are “more civilized”?
HF: You said better, more advanced, and more civilized. I didn’t say that.
I said that, descriptively, certain memes (like ballet) pertain to certain metamemes (like modernity)—by logical necessity. This may interact with certain geographical and ethnic entities like “Western” or “Indian”, but it’s not a theory about such entities.
My claim is, rather, that such entities, “civilizational cultural spheres”, are ultimately epiphenomena; i.e. that they’re a lot less important than we’ve usually been taught to think. We tend to over-essentialize them, to ascribe too much explanatory power to “Western”, “Indian” and so on. If you think about it, it’s obvious that I have much more in common with a contemporary urban Indian than with a German even in the 1700s. The memetic distance is smaller to the contemporary Indian citizen.
But again, about ballet, the burden of proof is on you: show me ballet (or something that corresponds closely to it in terms of choreography) emerging in a tribal, Animistic setting, and I shall solemnly eat my hat. I’ll record it on YouTube so you revel in it on repeat and in slow-motion. Then go on to finding an Animistic theory of gravity, Animistic social science, or Animistic stock markets. The burden is yours, not mine.
If you start from the negatives, and work by falsification, it becomes obvious that history is non-arbitrarily ordered. What I mean by that is that is that you can look at all the things that obviously do not exists in, say, pre-Modern societies, and which cannot emerge without the Modern (or later) metameme. Show me the Picasso of the 11th century? Poststructuralist critique of literature in the Warring States period of China? No?
I’m not saying that ballet is “finer”. I watched the Swan Lake once in Copenhagen, and it bored me to tears. Not going back there. I had much more fun doing an ecstatic tribal style dance around a fire at a Burning Man event. Naked.
I’m just saying that it pertains to the Modern metameme, and I shall labor to explore the meaning of this throughout the book. Death metal is also (late) Modern. But, of course, fearsome songs about blood, gore and demons are found across all the metamemes.
Let’s go on with another example. Is opera truly “Western”? What about Chinese opera, then? Western opera and Chinese opera showed up in different settings, the Chinese evolving considerably earlier and independently, in a more pre-modern setting, today counting over a hundred regional styles. But neither tradition could have been generated in an Animistic context.
Calling ballet “Modern” is not a matter of preference—this always depends on the eye of the observer, one may prefer things for any number of reasons—but simply a point about the non-arbitrary nature of history. History is structured. It’s not, to use an worn expression, just “one damned thing after another” (ODATAA). History has melodies; I would say, beautiful ones.
And if history does indeed play in discernable melodies, why not listen to them?
Q: Okay, so a bit off topic: Where does this leave “the rise of the West”, then? I mean, the historical process that lead European powers to become the nexus of globalization, modernization—and colonialism.
HF: Just as humanity has no predefined special place among species and nature, so does no geographical or ethnic part of humanity have a special or select place “before the others”. There is, in the last instance, no “middle kingdom”; it’s just that memes emerge in different times and places among certain groups of people. But memes evolve fast and they travel fast. They combine well; they merge and have ebbs and flows and fashions. They mutate. So whatever may show up in one ethnic setting can very well travel and take hold in another. Did you know that ketchup is originally an Indonesian fish sauce imported to coastal urban China in the 1700s—and didn’t contain tomatoes? Speaking of ballet, would you say it is today more of a Western affair, or more of a Russian and East European one?
Nations, peoples and civilizations are themselves memes. They emerge as ideas in the heads of human beings, through their interactions, and they control the movements of human bodies. So even these are structured according to certain metamemes.
There is, I hold, nothing Western-centric or Eurocentric in itself about the theory of metamemes. It can be misused in Western-centric or even racist ways, but let us take all necessary precautions to prevent that. By all means.
If anything, the theory of metamemes works against Western-centric views of history and the world. Sure, Europe shaped modernity and modernity shaped the West, but modernity is not reducible to “Western”; there are other versions of it, still being explored to this day. Nor should Indian, Chinese, or any other culture, be exotified and taken to have too inherent qualities. The history of the world is just that: world history, and this includes all cultural spheres, all civilizations, all metamemes, all genders, all ecological environments.
I’ll get back to discussing the rise of the West later in the book, more to explain why and how it happened.
Q: But you still mean to say that there can and should be an evolution into the Metamodern metameme. So you do think that the later metamemes are better, because each of them “builds upon” the preceding one?
HF: Tricky question. But a fair one. And very important, so I commend your perseverance.
Here’s what I believe. We don’t have the eyes of God, and in the last instance, only an all-seeing God would know what is good, better, or the best. But from different vantage points, we can make arguments for why some developmental properties can and should be preferable than others in different settings.
For instance, in Modern humanism, as will be described later in the book, human rights are important, and so Modern societies are adverse to slavery. The Romans were pre-Modern and had slaves. As did the Vikings. Better or worse? Who’s to say, in the end? But at least we can make the argument that, under the current historical circumstances, and in terms of human happiness and suffering, we would probably be worse off with a global legal slave trade than we are without one. So let’s prefer Modern values on this one, shall we?
Does this mean that Roman and Viking culture were “worse” than today’s Modern Poland, for instance? Not really. Does it say anything about the individual value of any one Roman citizen or Viking clansman in comparison to a contemporary Pole? No. Does it mean Cicero and Seneca and Harald Bluetooth were lesser men than today’s Polish cabinet members? No.
It just means that, on a collective level, given a certain level of complexity in society, it makes sense to accept certain Modern patterns of thought and values. Under certain circumstances, the Modern metameme has comparative advantages, and without the Modern metameme in place, a society of a certain level of complexity would likely fall apart.
A somewhat dangerous simplification—but perhaps still a useful one—would be to say that metamemes matter on a collective level, but that they say nothing about people individually who happen to carry and express metamemes through their actions: their quality, worth, and so on. For instance, if my grandmother resonated with another metameme than I do, she was still a person I to this day have many reasons to remember fondly and look up to respectfully.
But even that kind of misses the point. The point is that the Metamodern metameme makes more sense in the presently emerging world-system, because its logic corresponds to the actual society we live in. So if we don’t, in some sense, become metamodern, we’re all going to crash and burn.
It goes both ways, really. Later metamemes can be disruptive, meaningless, and destructive if they enter into the wrong context at the wrong time. How many indigenous cultures have not been oppressed and ripped apart by an inappropriate exposure to other, larger, cultures with later metamemes?
And, of course, the different metamemes have different pros and cons. There is always a price for development, often a very tragic one.
Still, we have good reasons to study, understand, and relate productively to, the evolution of metamemes, strategically—and sensitively—spurring their development.
Q: But Animistic culture has gone on for over 40 000 years (as I think we’ll discuss later). Modern culture is only 500 years old and already crashing the planet. Does it really make sense to believe that we need more of this development?
HF: Actually, yes. Imagine if, in the present day, people would literally stop believing in a Modern worldview, and assume, as animists and many faustians (will get back to defining these) naturally did, that the world is flat—and that you solve medical problems by invoking spirits. What would actually happen? Collapse would happen. Suffering untold. Imagine what the response to the COVID-19 pandemic would have looked like. And in some places, there have indeed been pre-Modern responses to the virus pandemic; just gurgle some cologne.
Animistic cultures sometimes did collapse, just at slower pace and on smaller scale than the Modern world is doing. All cultures collapse sooner or later. Once a certain Modern world has come into being and thus affects the environment on a massively larger scale, however, there are only two ways ahead: either collapse, or evolve. The universe is a beautiful place, but it has its rough edges.
And we’re on a rough edge right now. We have passed a threshold after which the Modern metameme, for all its glory—it is just a magnificent as all the other metamemes—simply cannot sustain itself. Also, it cannot produce a thriving global community with shiny, happy people.
Q: Shiny, happy people, huh?
HF: Yes, and non-human animals, to whichever extent that is practically possible. Shiny, happy dogs and seals and fish and monkeys. Tall order, I know. But why should we strive for anything less? I don’t see any particular reason to extend our caring only to humans.
That it’s hard doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. Rather, I’d argue, we should do what makes sense. It’s not about creating a utopia where “everyone is happy”. It is about exchanging ideas, paradigms, and narratives that make less sense, with others which make more sense—given the current historical circumstances. And, in the process, that may open up the possibility of avoiding some horrible outcomes and generating better likelihoods for relatively sustainable flourishing and happiness.
Q: Aren’t you being a tad bit too arrogant? Who are you to take upon yourself to define this direction of the evolution of all life on our planet? And how could one small person contribute to creating a world of shiny, happy people and non-human animals?
HF: Then again, who is anyone to take up such a task? What authority could we possibly defer to? We’ll just have to make do with limited, wounded, mediocre people who pretend to be great philosophers and scrutinize their work. Perhaps we can co-create something worthwhile in terms of new transnational and global institutions based on a worldview that is in tune with the internet age.
Anybody really has the right to take a shot at it, don’t you think? Or should we just abstain from any discussion about the overall development of global civilization? What kind of humility would that be—one that silences perhaps the most important discussion we can have?
By that note, I could ask you the same, who are you to be asking all of these questions? You have the right to wonder, and I am taking the right to speak my truth.
Q: That’s the worst part; you even control which questions you’re being asked by writing both sides of this conversation! Come on, stop hiding.
I won’t play along. I’ll grill you. I’ll be a thorn in your side and your self-congratulatory ego project of world-savior mania. I’ll make you sweat.
And sometimes, I’ll play nice and ask some questions just to see how you respond. I’m Q, I’ll wake you up at night, shake you with doubts and uncomfortable questions, being tough but fair. And I’ll bring your pretentions down, showing that what you’re saying is neither new nor unique, nor very feasible, not even very relevant.
HF: Now, who’s taking themselves too seriously?
Q: Stop being passive-aggressive. I know you’re angry at me and you just want me to be submissive and adoring of your self-proclaimed talent and magnificent theory and captivating stories. But I’m a part of your larger, transpersonal self. I’ll bring out all your weak spots and shadows. I’ll get you to reveal yourself, to others and to yourself. I’ll demystify your fake persona. And that will get us closer to the raw, emotional and hard, crunchy truth… So have no illusions as to why I’m sticking around. I’ll be keeping it real.
Here I am. But where’s the real you? I’m the playful one; I’m the trickster. You’re the joke.
HF: Whoa. Okay. At least I’ll try to be a good joke. At your service.
Hopefully, in the end, we can join together in holistic laughter at our shared existential predicament. We’re interdependent; the philosopher needs the Great Inquirer, the Q—and vice versa.
It’s not a Sherlock-Watson kind of deal. It’s not even properly Socratic—in Plato’s writings Socrates always ends up on top.
Rather, imagine a nightmare version of Watson, one that calls on Sherlock at 3 am and flushes him with a bucket of cold water. That’s you, Q. Sometimes I loathe you for it.
And Watson keeps Sherlock’s schedule; you define what topic we’re discussing in each and every paragraph. We need a Watson who knows his stuff, one that can combine curiosity with biting back and representing counter-arguments and real concerns. No question is ever fully answered—and thus, Q must always be larger than A (for Answer), in this case me. Master is the Q, slave is the A.
Think about it this way: If we’re both figments of the same imagination, then my responses flow just as much from yourself as your questions flow from me and my machinations. After all, aren’t the questions just as an important part of a book as its answers?
And if I did indeed create you, and I didn’t want to be challenged, wouldn’t I have conjured up a more docile and servile Q, one that met me only with grateful curiosity? After all, if you’re also me, then I will hardly appear magnanimous to the reader, since your sometimes harsh voice is ultimately my own. A real philosopher cannot have a cute Q.
No, it’s not you against me. I think we’re both traveling where the ideas guide us. In that sense, the book writes itself. We’re just listening in, both of us. Tuning in to radio Metamodern FM, to hear a new melody of history—so we can write songs for new days and long nights. I’m listening to hear your questions and comments, and you’re listening to hear how I respond.
Still, that being said, I think that I’ll be able to give you useful and interesting answers, and I still think the path of inquiry we’re taking together leads to a great adventure. So I’m really not angry with you. I’m grateful for your directness and bluntness.
That way, you do that part of the job for me, the dirty work. Somebody needs to have their sleeves rolled up and get their hands dirty, and that’ll be you. How else could we change the world?
And I can just be polite. Magnanimous, even. Like a worthy philosopher of history.
Now be a good Q and get this party started, will you!
Q: Fuck you Hanzi, you arrogant cunt.
[i] Hey, of course, we can begin to imagine memetic evolution beyond biological life, and thus a cultural history in a non-organic substrate. But let’s set that aside for now.
[ii] By the way, instead of “story” I sometimes use the word “narrative”, which to me means “story in a wider and deeper sense”, such as all the underlying assumptions of a certain set of interlinked stories, some of the words used in the stories, the connotations of these words, and so on. So basically, “narrative”, when I use the word, means story, but more in the abstract.
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.