Neuroatypicality Is the Shamanism of Late Modernity

Neuroatypical people often have a mixture of very strong and very weak sides compared to the average. This puts them in a strange category besides the conventional hierarchies of society.

Why are so many metamodernists neuroatypical?

As an author on the topic of metamodernism I have not been able not to notice the extreme over-representation among metamodernists of some form of neuroatypicality and otherwise far-from average nervous systems:

  • from ADHD in its different variants (which alone may account for as much as fifty percent of the community) including what was formerly known as ADD, to high-functioning autism, to dyslexia, to highly sensitive persons, to unusual propensities for having spiritual experiences, to chronic fatigue syndrome, to lucid dreamers, to bipolar disorders, to non-cis genders and sexualities, to of course strong currents of psychedelic culture and experience.

As I have argued, metamodernism is the social current at the crux of the Triple-H population: Hackers, Hippies, Hipsters. Or Quadruple-H population, if you count Hermetics — people interested in sincerely-ironically reviving the occult.

Metamodernism is the current that comes after “postmodernism”. Metamodernism takes “a left turn” on modern progress, exploring other directions of its possible development than “more tech, bigger markets, the spread of liberalism”. This can include such things as a renewed interest in spiritual and psychological development, an experimental sociology that tries out and evaluates new forms of living and working together, and of course arts and culture that express the structures of feeling and mind that draw beyond the confines of modernity’s long arc.

It’s a self-selection pattern

One of the most overlooked forces in structural analysis (race, gender, class, privilege, reproduction of norms) is self-selection.

For instance, a more nuanced perspective on gender than what passes for the liberal mainstream’s feminism is to see how gender discrimination (which indeed exists and explains a lot) interfaces with self-selection pressures. As such, you can see that people in highly gender-equal countries like Sweden, the genders actually select more different professions (tech vs. medicine/care), because people can choose more freely.

Likewise, we may hypothesize with good reason that social movements and currents are subject to extreme self-selection patterns. Nazis will very likely have lower-than-average agreeability (on the Big 5 personality scale), for instance. People with this profile are much more likely to select themselves for a really tough ideology and social setting. Charity workers will on average have high agreeability.

Metamodernism is a very complex pattern and category. It straddles tech, culture, politics, spirituality/religion, philosophy, psychology, and much else… and as such it gathers people with very different profiles. But what all of those profiles have in common is that they are far-from-average-in-multiple-ways.

Far-from-average-in-multiple-ways in terms of capacities and personality means that a) there are some things that are very easy to most people that are very hard for you, and b) there are some things that most people could not do but you for some reason have a talent for.

This means that everything around you — the education system, job market, norms of daily interaction, even clothing and furniture — is maladapted to your needs and potential. In turn, this means that you need a wider and more complex and sensitive social pattern than modernity to make use of your unique strengths and balance your weaknesses. You need more complex expectation management: more room for ups and downs, for the dramatic, the shifts between the tremendous and the utterly pathetic. Modern life cuts you off. It’s a straightjacket for you.

And so, metamodernists self-select because they have unusual minds. And so they begin to try to weave a social fabric that can withstand such vast differences in human expression. For my part, my mentors in life have included an OCD-mega-reductionist math-professor who loves cars, and a super-sexualized-mega-spiritual-not-so-intellectual lady who could blow up the EEG brainwave meter by putting herself in a trance at will in seconds (but both had in common that they really liked to talk about themselves in quite positive terms). What’s the structure of mind and feeling that includes such extremes, that can make the best of them, that can meet their respective needs?

Trans-hierarchicality: the shaman returns

So what happens to people who are far-from-average-in-multiple-ways is that they gain some pretty unique insight into the frailty and arbitrariness of social hierarchies: every now and then people notice your strong sides, and assume you’re walking around in God mode, and every so often they notice your weak side and write you off as far, far below them.

It’s confusing for everyone involved, not at least for the neurodivergent person herself. It usually takes years and years to settle on a path in life and set nuanced and reasonable expectations upon life, as one gets so wildly conflicting messages and feedback about one’s capacities.

And it’s confusing for other people. The folks who wrote off the neuroatypical person as slow, incompetent, socially awkward, weird, or whatever it may be, aren’t exactly thrilled to find out that same person hangs out with people far above themselves in social hierarchy and the neurodivergent one is apparently respected by these.

Now, it’s unfortunate but it’s true, that it has been experimentally shown again and again (behavioral biologist Robert Sapolsky goes through the studies in his magnum opus, Behave) that ambiguous social hierarchies cause profound anxiety. And why wouldn’t they? Think about it: we’re social beings living in a social universe where all of our expectations upon life hinge on how we perceive and reconstruct social hierarchies. If there is unclarity around this, we never know if we might suddenly wake up tomorrow and be the beggar, the laughing stock, or just the bland loser nobody respects. We all want some kind of certainty to hold on to, to know what to expect, what to prepare ourselves for, to strive for.

Many of the neuroatypical people somehow fall between the cracks of the social hierarchies of everyday life: like Diogenes, they can live on the street but have Alexander the Great come visiting, so to speak. They can be famous but poor. Rich but lonely. Awkward but admired. They can oscillate between unemployment and top-tier jobs.

Are they competent or incompetent? Lazy or hard-working? Popular or lame? Who the hell knows. It’s confusing.

And it can be frustrating, enormously so. Sometimes it can trigger extremely negative reactions — witch hunts in some societies obviously; in late modernity usually just the more “normal” people reacting against “the arrogance” of the neurodivergent ones, against the sense that they must somehow have cheated. They must have! Come on, how could this loser who cannot tie his shoes and hold a normal conversation suddenly be making thrice my salary? It doesn’t make sense. How come a person who cannot stand up two rounds in normal cantine banter can have wider and more high-tier networks than I do?

And so, there’s hate. There’s envy and jealousy. There are conspiracy theories and shit-talk about the neurodivergents. It is what it is. It’s human. It comes from the social hierarchies getting blurred in genuinely painful ways.

But the truth is that very neurodivergent people are besides the hierarchies of mainstream society. Sure, they can end up top, bottom, or anywhere in between. You can have ADHD and become homeless, sure. Speaking in Darwinian evolutionary terms, ADHD or the like are high-risk strategies. It’s far from equilibrium, so to speak. Anything can happen. Suicide is also over-represented, as are family histories involving schizophrenia.

However, quite often it just means that you end up here and there across the normal hierarchies: and this tendency is strengthened so much in the days of the Internet, where you can try out so many more social contexts so much easier.

So neuroatypicality strongly correlates with trans-hierarchality. You’re not immune to hierarchies. You’re not above and beyond them. But, once you’ve found your feet in life with some extreme weaknesses and strengths, you begin to land in a confusing mix of high and low places in the social hierarchies.

You land in a strange place beside the social hierarchies, where you have a side-view of them, where they become see-through to you.

And this trans-hierarchality is exactly the position of the shaman. In animist societies you literally have shamans prancing about and acting outside of the roles normally assigned in the tribe: spirits and ancestors come and go according to their own logic. For late modernity, you have something new but similar:

  • Whereas the shaman can spellbind the animist “normies” with magic, invoked spirits, and by breaking taboos, today’s counterpart does very little magic in the realm of natural science, but instead seems to break the laws of social science: “The world doesn’t work like that. You’re not supposed to be able to do that. Or at least not somebody like you.”

It’s a version of performing little miracles, of walking on water. How on earth is my bum buddy an advisor to the minister? And why did he get the advice from a person now deceased from suicide? What’s going on?

The fringe at the center of it all

And so, this late-modern shamanism interconnects the classes of society. It interconnects the most divergent personalities. It includes people who frequent the psychiatric ward, the people who work there as doctors and therapists, and the theorists who in turn inspire those. It struggles through its apparent social magic to weave a pattern that holds across all of these settings— one that would include and care for not just the average human, but for humanity in all of her split-up and divergent glory.

There is thus, for all of its particularity — nay, because of its extreme particularity — an exceedingly universalist striving that animates this entire movement: metamodernism. And social theorists have for a long time held that emancipation, i.e. the processes that may increase human freedom and spiritual or existential progress, is that which breaks out of the confines of particular interests and asserts the universal.

The truly interesting part is that today, in the Internet age, it is the first time that shamans can work together at scale. Up until now they have always been outnumbered by their social surroundings. And as these begin to — well, I’m not sure “organize” is the right word — let’s say do their thing in concerted manners, they thereby interconnect the world’s social fringes with its center, its destitute and powerless with its rich and powerful, its cultural elites with its bible belts.

At a collective level the neuroatypical people — when these create a side-view culture, metamodernism — become a global shaman: doing their social magic, they transform the directions that society’s development can take and open our doors of perception towards the universal.

Neuroatyicality is the shamanism of late modernity.

Don’t believe me? What do you think Greta Thunberg and Elon Musk have in common?

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ’12 Commandments’ 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 Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.