Text, Telos, and Ritual

I’ve been set free and I’ve been bound
To the memories of yesterday’s clouds
I’ve been set free and I’ve been bound
And now I’m set free
I’m set free to find a new illusion

— “I’m Set Free,” The Velvet Underground

“As time goes on… the universe becomes more and more what experience has revealed, less and less what imagination has created, and hence, since it was not designed to suit man’s needs, less and less what he would have it be. With increasing knowledge his power to manipulate his physical environment increases, but in gaining the knowledge which enables him to do so he surrenders insensibly the power which in his ignorance he had to mold the universe.”

— Joseph Wood Krutch

Text, Telos, and Ritual: Variations on the Metamodern

Note: This essay is meant as “long content” as practiced by Gwern.net. It is a work (perhaps) intended always to be in progress and never to be finished, a “becoming which never becomes.” Still, it attempts to sketch out, even in such an incomplete form, both what I perceive to be one of the most pressing social issues of our 21st century as well as the preliminary attempts which have been made to solve said issue. This crisis, of course, is the decline of religious teleology, sacredness, and meaningfulness in contemporary society.


BACKGROUND OF A PROBLEM:


I.

American sociologist Lewis Mumford distinguishes between two types of utopian thinking. One he calls the “aimless utopia of escape,” a sort of daydreaming which distracts the dreamer from a productivity which might better his life. The other is a “purposive utopia of reconstruction,” which animates man into action. Mumford references pragmatist philosopher John Dewey in further distinguishing between the two:

Suppose that a man is denied intercourse with his friends at a distance. One kind of reaction is for him to “imagine” meeting his friends, and going through, in fantasy, a whole ritual of meeting, repartee, and discussion. The other kind of reaction, as Dr. Dewey says, is to see what conditions must be met in order to cement distant friends, and then invent the telephone.

The purposive dreamer builds (and leverages his imagination into his building); the escapist dreamer wastes away. Daydreaming to Mumford is a pejorative which prevents progress: while a short-term solution to happiness, it saps at the will and when practiced on a large scale precludes the sort of technological and social innovation capable of actualizing such dreams into reality. Barring a Great Filter scenario, there are many generations and many billions more human beings yet to come; if we’re being at all optimistic about humanity’s future, explore-exploit optimization [1] ethically compels us to invent better telephones instead of imaginary friends.

Indeed, purposive utopian thinking is self-fulfilling: the belief that one can make the world a better place appears, as a motivator, to be a significant catalyst of human progress. Richard Rorty (an intellectual descendant of Dewey) makes a similar argument for patriotism —that without a certain level of national self-esteem, some deep-seated belief that America can and should be better, there can be no motivation for trying.[2] Here’s Christopher Lasch, a contemporary of Rorty, in the watershed True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. Lasch is writing in the late eighties and early nineties; whether sociopolitical conditions have changed since is a worthwhile question.

Political pressure for a more equitable distribution of wealth can only come from movements fired with religious purpose and a lofty conception of life. […] Popular initiative has been declining for some time — in part because the democratization of consumption is an insufficiently demanding ideal, which fails to call up the moral energy necessary to sustain popular movements in the face of adversity. The history of popular movements, including the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties — the last such uprising in American history — shows that only an arduous, even a tragic understanding of life can justify the sacrifices imposed on those who seek to challenge the status quo.

In other words, action requires belief in both the possibility of desired outcomes and in some ethical mattering which makes such outcomes worth striving for — a “tragic understanding” of the value of human life. Belief here is instrumental: Mikhail Epstein writes that “utopia endows the individual with a more significant and a wider horizon,” motivating him to make an effort in its general direction. Though by definition the attempt will inevitably fall short (the etymology of “utopia” is Greek, from “ou” and “topos” meaning “no” and “place” respectively), when utopian thought is shared among many individuals, it will result in the construction of a society which looks more like their ideal vision than it did before. As soon as (but only as soon as) the possibility of utopia has been opened, as soon as new locations are visible on the horizon-line, navigational instruments can be reoriented, courses set. It’s often argued that political progress is largely the result of expanding political conversation — of marking new issues on the map which, once marked, can be explored.

II.

At some point, however, we hit a brick wall: to 21st century readers, Mumford’s dismissal of private daydreaming, and his idea that technological progress on its own is capable of creating a utopian society, increasingly appears naive. It’s worth pondering the degree to which modern Western society might resemble historic conceptions of utopian living: Rutger Bregman imagines in Utopia For Realists how 21st century Western society would have looked to medieval humans:

‘To the medieval mind,’ the Dutch historian Herman Pleij writes, ‘modern-day western Europe comes pretty close to a bona fide Cockaigne. You have fast food available 24/7, climate control, free love, workless income, and plastic surgery to prolong youth.’ These days, there are more people suffering from obesity worldwide than from hunger. In Western Europe, the murder rate is [forty] times lower, on average, than what it was in the Middle Ages, and if you have the right passport, you’re assured an impressive social safety net.

A plethora of possible explanations for modern-day discontent (and our continued longing for some far-off utopia) gets tossed around in response to Pleij’s implicit challenge; this essay will restrain itself to touching on a select few. One such possibility is that technological and social progress have been historically designed to optimize lower-level needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy — better access to food and shelter, a safer and less violent world — which, once taken care of, merely allow us to shift our unhappiness onto higher-level needs like social belonging and self-actualization. It’s only when humans finally have leisure time, for example, that they can feel the deep existential despair of ennui and angst, or “being unhappy about being unhappy” as Venkatesh Rao puts it for Ribbonfarm.

Sarah Perry takes this argument further; in her seminal “Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty,” she argues that material and resource-based solutions are not just sought instead of higher-level solutions, but often come at the cost of overall life satisfaction:

The lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid reflect material well-being. But material abundance is not itself the cause of anomie and angst. Rather, ancestral, evolved solutions to lower-level problems tended to contain solutions to higher-level problems as well. As these ancestral solutions are made obsolete by solutions that are more efficient on the material level, the more ineffable, higher-level problems they solved present themselves anew. Simple abundance of food is not the cause of obesity, but rather the loss of carefully evolved ancestral diets. Our ancestors found it easy to get to sleep because they were tired from intense physical activity; we often find it a challenge to get to sleep because modern solutions to material problems do not include physical activity. We are lonely and bored not because of material abundance simpliciter, but because the specific cultural patterns that have reproduced themselves to produce material abundance have whittled away the social and psychological solutions that were built into old solutions to material problems.

(Another example of this overlap might be tribalism, which fulfills lower level needs like safety, resource stability, and improved ability to hunt game — but in the process contains higher-level, more abstract solutions like community, companionship, and social belonging.)

Religious and teleological narratives arguably fall under a similar category as the issues listed above. That we have moved past a religious model of the universe and of human existence has proved enormously valuable materially, technologically, and scientifically. It has also allowed Western society to move past the oppressive constraints of religious moral codes and expand civil liberties; this clears the path for previously marginalized groups to climb Maslow’s hierarchy towards self-actualization. But further down the road, religion’s demise also causes blockage. Joseph Wood Krutch, in 1929’s The Modern Temper, draws a parallel between the life of an individual and the lifespan of human civilization: “As civilization grows older it too has more and more facts thrust upon its consciousness and is compelled to abandon one after another, quite as the child does, certain illusions which have become dear to it.” One of these major disillusionments is the realization that morality and ethics have no ultimate, religious, or cosmic truth to them. Like Rousseau on “noble savagery,” Krutch agrees we cannot “return to a state of relative ignorance,” but is unsure how else to proceed. Many of his intellectual contemporaries, most prominently Bertrand Russell, argue for an ironic practice of teleology; William James makes a case in “The Will To Believe” for the necessity of belief in ultimate morality as a means of ensuring social order and welfare.

The loss of a teleological narrative, meanwhile, of cosmic mattering and meaningfulness, comes at a high cost to the collective psyche. Krutch’s arguments runs that as man gains an increasing technological ability to manipulate his physical environment, he simultaneously loses his ability to, through the imagination, “mold the universe” into “what he would have it.” Haley Thurston at The Sublemon defines sacredness as the quality of a thing being “so important that in order to preserve it, you’re willing, consciously or unconsciously, to not examine it.” (While the examination of one’s beliefs is certainly a part of many Abrahamic traditions, the conclusions always seem built-in to the exercise; by never transcending an Abrahamic worldview, such examinations are themselves ritualistic and arguably act more as reinforcement than serious skepticism.) One wonders if religious meaningfulness, let out of the box and now evaporating into thin air, is a belief which should have been held more sacred.

III.

“The mind leaps, and leaps perhaps with a sort of elation, through the immensities of space, but the spirit, frightened and cold, longs to have once more above its head the inverted bowl beyond which may life whatever paradise its desires may create.”

— Krutch

What follows is an attempt at capturing the standard, Lit-101 narrative of twentieth century literary and popular sensibilities. There are conspicuous exceptions, contradictions, and epistemic fault-lines to such a narrative, but it’s nevertheless valuable to spell out here because it happens to be the particular narrative so many writers today cling to, and because its presence as a narrative at all it helps us make sense of our world:

Religion increasingly on the decline, the sheer scale of human tragedy in World War I heightens existing feelings of void-like meaninglessness and nihilism. In response, inter-war creatives desperately attempt to reconcile this emerging world with old understandings, and to prevent (via art) such atrocities from being committed again. Post-Auschwitz, Stalingrad, Nagasaki, much of this moral hope and urgency fades among (white) Americans and Europeans, giving way to Cold War liberalism’s resigned moderation. Escapism takes preference to responsibility: The lone artist did not want the world to be different, he wanted his canvas to be a world (Rosenberg). Language games are often prioritized above moral seriousness, and post-modern philosophers dive fully into deconstruction. Some increasingly see their existences as arbitrary; empty determinism replaces ideas of destiny and fate. By the eighties and nineties this consciousness has seeped into popular culture, and irony’s ubiquity gains academic notice. Infinite Jest is published in 1996 [3] and theories of a new sensibility begin to bubble up to the surface, one which eventually gets called metamodernism. In 2011, Luke Turner writes the movement’s informal manifesto, later made famous by a Shia Labeouf plagiarism scandal. This manifesto reads as follows:

1. We recognise oscillation to be the natural order of the world.
2. We must liberate ourselves from the inertia resulting from a century of modernist ideological naivety and the cynical insincerity of its antonymous bastard child.
3. Movement shall henceforth be enabled by way of an oscillation between positions, with diametrically opposed ideas operating like the pulsating polarities of a colossal electric machine, propelling the world into action.
4. We acknowledge the limitations inherent to all movement and experience, and the futility of any attempt to transcend the boundaries set forth therein. The essential incompleteness of a system should necessitate an adherence, not in order to achieve a given end or be slaves to its course, but rather perchance to glimpse by proxy some hidden exteriority. Existence is enriched if we set about our task as if those limits might be exceeded, for such action unfolds the world.
5. All things are caught within the irrevocable slide towards a state of maximum entropic dissemblance. Artistic creation is contingent upon the origination or revelation of difference therein. Affect at its zenith is the unmediated experience of difference in itself. It must be art’s role to explore the promise of its own paradoxical ambition by coaxing excess towards presence.
6. The present is a symptom of the twin birth of immediacy and obsolescence. Today, we are nostalgists as much as we are futurists. The new technology enables the simultaneous experience and enactment of events from a multiplicity of positions. Far from signalling its demise, these emergent networks facilitate the democratisation of history, illuminating the forking paths along which its grand narratives may navigate the here and now.
7. Just as science strives for poetic elegance, artists might assume a quest for truth. All information is grounds for knowledge, whether empirical or aphoristic, no matter its truth-value. We should embrace the scientific-poetic synthesis and informed naivety of a magical realism. Error breeds sense.
8. We propose a pragmatic romanticism unhindered by ideological anchorage. Thus, metamodernism shall be defined as the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt, in pursuit of a plurality of disparate and elusive horizons. We must go forth and oscillate!

Some points which might clarify and/or contextualize the above declaration: By “modernist ideological naivety,” Turner is ostensibly referring to the post-World War One generation. By its cynically insincere “antonymous bastard child,” post-World War Two post-modernism. (This regardless of historical accuracy.) It’s also worth mentioning that the New Sincerity movements, encompassing both the early-00s literary and late-80s Austin folk scene, are frequently grouped together with metamodernism in conventional narrative, though this has always seemed to me misguided: the music of Daniel Johnston is far too unawaredly bright-eyed to be considered metamodern, lacking an aforementioned “oscillating” quality; the alt-lit of Tao Lin always seemed more interested in sincerely describing life’s meaninglessness than in doing anything about it.

To borrow a phrase, standard disclaimers apply. Reality is messy. The above is a reductive, highly simplified narrative which has been drawn retroactively with some combination of curative and impositional leeway. But it’s worth being aware of.

Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, two philosophers often credited with crystallizing the current metamodernist movement, argue that there is more a longing for hope than there is actual hope in metamodern society: the desire is one of utility, where sensibilities are used instrumentally in the service of an end — happiness (if delusional) and progress, made possible only by belief (believing providing the grounds for actualizing). This is their “out” from the dilemma Krutch describes, where society cannot go back to blissful ignorance, nor can it continue forward with a philosophy of nihilism and cosmic meaninglessness. While it embodies a sense of “renewed hope, of renewed urgency, to create something, go forward,” modern society, Vermeulen and van den Akker write, is still very much “tied to the postmodern distrust… this doublebind” of “we cannot do that anymore, we cannot be as pure as the modernist avant garde… but still we want to do so. You want to go forward, you want to be optimistic.”

It cannot be stressed enough that this quality of oscillation is key to the idea of a metamodern sensibility. The American writer Andre Dubus became consumed near the end of his life with the idea of “sacraments” — completed, ritualistic acts of devotion which imbue daily living with meaning — but can’t really be considered a proto-metamodernist given the decidedly Catholic nature of his belief, the fact that he perceived these sacraments as, once performed, inherently meaningful, rather than tools towards creating the sensation of meaningfulness. Oscillation and conscious choice are the outs not just to Krutch’s double-bind but the solution to the dilemma, the hellish trade-off, central to his thesis on morality and meaning: “As time goes on… the universe becomes more and more what experience has revealed, less and less what imagination has created, and hence, since it was not designed to suit man’s needs, less and less what he would have it be. With increasing knowledge his power to manipulate his physical environment increases, but in gaining the knowledge which enables him to do so he surrenders insensibly the power which in his ignorance he had to mold the universe.” It is a way to mobilize knowledge in order to imagine (and thus create, both in actuality and in perception) a more meaningful reality. It is a purposive rationality which allows and encourages daydreaming in the service of a better world.

Of course, all of the above is a form of teleology-building, a crafting of narrative in a way which transforms (the perception of) chaos into (the perception of) order. Turner notes that “Today, we are nostalgists as much as we are futurists… emergent networks facilitate the democratisation of history, illuminating the forking paths along which its grand narratives may navigate the here and now.” Implicitly, we understand that his Metamodernist Manifesto is operating in the exact same vein by creating and continuing the “grand narrative” of literary progress and development.

It has to be a narrative accurate enough to convince a reader of its plausibility, compelling enough to argue for its adoption, and instrumentally valuable enough that it improves, if only marginally, the lives of its adopters by making the world that much more meaningful, that much more a combination of what “experience has revealed” and “imagination has created,” so as to, out of our “increasing knowledge,” once again gain the power to “mold the universe.”


CONTEMPORARY RESPONSE:


IV.

Willing ourselves into belief is easier said than done. Once we become aware of our own atheistic aloneness, once we learn our lives are not teleological but arbitrary, we know too much. How, then, to proceed? Is it possible to unlearn such discoveries? Is it desirable? How might we be able to entertain a cognitive dissonance in which we both acknowledge our inherent meaninglessness and champion our inherent meaning, if this truly is the metamodern sensibility?

What we know is this: it appears to be both necessary and impossible to believe in some cosmic significance; Beckett’s “can’t go on; must go on” comes to mind, though with energy now instead of resignation. Without belief we lack a sense of purpose; we give way to nihilism; we become existentially enraged and perpetually discontented. Compartmentalize Turner; this is one of the central and most urgent problems of the umbrella known as metamodernism. It is an outlook centered around instrumental rather than absolute truth; it is a sensibility dedicated to reconstruction instead of deconstruction — though the former is possible only after performing the latter; it is a movement concerned with imbuing daily life with meaning — imaginary and impossible as it is. It wishes to do this to the point that distinctions between illusion and reality blurs, until the human being is liberated by a system created for his benefit; it wishes to establish means for hacking into the mind [4] and exploiting the sensation of meaningfulness, even while the term’s value in any vacuum sense has been entirely discarded. The “how,” of course, remains frustratingly elusive.

Judith Butler via Maggie Nelson:

The bad reading [of Gender Trouble] goes something like this: I can get up in the morning, look in my closet, and decide which gender I want to be today. I can take out a piece of clothing and change my gender: stylize it, and then that evening I can change it again and be something radically other, so that what you get is something like the commodification of gender, and the understanding of taking on a gender as a kind of consumerism … When my whole point was that the very formation of subjects, the very formation of persons, presupposes gender in a certain way—that gender is not to be chosen and that “performativity” is not radical choice and it’s not voluntarism … Performativity has to do with repetition, very often with the repetition of oppressive and painful gender norms to force them to resignify. This is not freedom, but a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in.

Butler notes as well the “instablity wrought by the simile” in Aretha Franklin’s lyric “You make me feel like a natural woman”; it seems only natural to point out Franklin’s “Day Dreaming” given the Lewis Mumford quote which opens this essay. Contra Mumford, daydreaming might be essential to the actualization of (or at least, limit-approach towards) utopia, but it would be an advanced sort of daydreaming, structured and premeditated in a way which tricks the dreamer into believing he is awake.

Sarah Perry — previously quoted as decrying the ways in which solutions to “lower-level” problems can in turn create higher-level problems like social alienation — writes frequently on ritual; her overarching thesis at its most distilled comes near the end of “Ritual and the Conscious Monoculture” when she analogizes the practice to vitamins (“we have need of them, our ancestral cultures provided them for us [naturally], and we suffer a kind of [spiritual] malnutrition without them”). Perry defines the ritual in terms almost identical to Bataille’s conception of the sacred — a behavior in which resources (eg, one’s own time or the lives of conscious beings) are sacrificed without an obvious and/or material gain in return — with the additional quality of being an inherently social activity. To some degree, a suspended belief in the meaning-generating power of such a ritual is self-fulfilling, so long as this belief is a requirement for a person to kick free of the inertia and participate in (or create/facilitate) group rituals: after sacrificing something in a ritualistic context, the brain reverse-engineers a justification for said sacrifice, which generates meaning where there previously was none. It’s not quite true that ritualistic sacrifice is without incentive — just that its incentives are less quantifiable, more invisible to a surface gaze: Flesh transforms into teleology, belonging, mattering with the mere sacrifice of a lamb. Moreover, the shared experience of sacrifice or general hardship creates social cohesion and unity; ritual is a practice which, like ancestral diets, simultaneously solves low and higher-level human needs (safety in numbers and social belonging, respectively).

Of course, these are mechanisms inherent in all ritual, whether or not belief is present (for example, if participation in the ritual is the result of social pressures); indeed Perry argues frequently that belief is by no means a prerequisite for ritualistic meaning generation. If standard human decision-making looks something like “X matters so I will do X,”  then ritualistic reasoning goes, “I did (and we all do, regularly) X, so it must matter.” (Of course, there are limits on how far human justification can go without “snapping”; see language’s “elastic band” quality in Section VI.)

It helps Perry’s case here that (as she herself extensively argues) ritualistic behaviors can induce “altered states of consciousness” and hack into the brain at a chemical level. In some cases, this is especially so. Sex, prolonged eye contact, and rhythm are all rituals or elements of rituals capable of causing pleasure centers to flood; Perry (who dances around Butlerian theory throughout her writings on ritual) notes that the former two activities are acts of “performance” which simultaneously “evidence” and “create belief.” Belief in the process or power of ritual can still play an important role (the sort of faith in possibility which leads near-strangers to go out on a date), but sometimes the ritual is undergone merely out of habit and can work on us almost unconsciously (such as handshaking as a traditional means of introduction, which through physical touch builds trust and intimacy).

V.

Previously, I’ve written on generic texts and artworks, on the way in which an awareness of Iserian gaps and indeterminacy transform the reader/viewer’s project of himself onto a work into an opportunity for self-discovery. Saying that the reader imposes himself upon, or enters the world of, the text, however, isn’t the full story. The text enters the world of the reader in arguably equal measure. Media consumption trains the consumer to see and think a certain way, and in this perhaps is salvation: if it can effectively transform the often arbitrary and disheartening events of our lives into some larger teleological narrative, perhaps we as well can learn to view our own existences in a similar way. To read Eggers on Egyptian weather — “living under that sun made me lighter and stronger, made of platinum” — is to learn a new way of seeing, of experiencing, and of therefore living. A previous evil, or at least inconvenience — high temperatures, an overbearing sun — has been transformed into something supernal, divine.

Earlier this summer, I spent a weekend holed up and working my way through all of Twin Peaks and Eraserhead. Afterwards, as if stumbling out of a trance and still half-way intoxicated, I felt my perception radically altered. The standard perceptive filter, the one that shapes our daily realities by discerning what to pay attention to and how we interpret signs, had been replaced by a distinctly Lynchian system of signification. The rattle of old pipes and the ambient hum of an AC unit — sensory inputs which would have normally been relegated to “white noise” and ignored — became ominous, surreal soundtracks; hallways fish-eyed and distorted; finger-snaps triggered images of Audrey Hornsby slow-dancing in the Double R Diner. Daily activities became infused with suspense and aestheticized gravity. It seems entirely possible that intense and prolonged (or even ordinary) exposure to narratives (via television,[5] film, and literature) might similarly create a “meaningfulness” or “teleological” filter of perception, curating and distorting (signifying) ordinary events in a way which adds up teleologically and feels chock-full with meaning. Essentially, a narrative identity informed by the consumption of narrativized media.

Mark Richardson, editor-in-chief of Pitchfork, notes a similar sensation in his 2012 essay “I Wanna Live: Two Songs About Freedom”:

When I’m walking around New York City listening to music, sometimes I start to feel so good about the world and my place in it that I can hardly believe it. Then I wonder how often the difference between “feeling good” and “feeling bad” can be bridged merely by playing a song at the right moment.

Music, for a multitude of reasons, is capable of generating meaning even outside of its (potent) ritualistic contexts. When I tweeted “Moving towards a new Theory of Existential Happiness facilitated by ‘Father Stretch My Hands Pt II’,” I was only partially kidding. The mechanism here is hazy — perhaps, because background music is associated with film soundtracks, ie content portraying characters who bear teleological, meaningful narratives, this meaningfulness is transferred onto any given listener, imposing drama, suspense, climax, or any number of narrative sensations onto banal activities. Albums, meanwhile, have their own inner cadences and logics, a story-like tendency to build into climax and then recede. If  “Ultralight Beam” is the slow, suspenseful creep-up which says “something important is about to happen,” then “Father Stretch My Hands” is the explosive “something important is happening.” (See also: This Is Happening or Is This It.) One of the most powerful songs of the new century, Jamie XX’s “Gosh,” is essentially a ritualistic, rhythm-driven song whose primary lyric is one of shock (the titular “Oh my gosh”) and whose central purpose is the aforementioned signifier, “Something important is happening; holy shit; something important is happening.” It’s no surprise that its original music video is of planets turning, and that its follow-up short film has been hailed as a crystallizing moment of the modern era, a sign of gears beginning to churn, of some strange communal power beginning to stir.

Here’s Bernstein on Beethoven:

Call the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony “Fate Knocking at the Door,” or “The Morse Code Call to Victory,” and you still have three G’s and an E-flat. That’s all you have. Through some freak in the human animal, these four notes, in their particular rhythmic pattern, have the power to produce a substantial effect on us.

VI.

Any kind of shared or guided processing of events operates as a form of narrative-crafting: this looks like anything from conversations with friends and family to media consumption and punditry. Consumption of a Noam Chomsky narrative of modernity and human progress yields vastly different results than following a Steven Pinker narrative à la Better Angels, and while a narrative’s accuracy is instrumentally valuable towards discovering solutions or predicting future events, it’s also instrumentally valuable to work off a narrative which incentivizes, mobilizes, or catalyzes productive action à la Mumford. Because both Pinker and the like-minded German stats brain Max C. Roser believe in the truth of their narratives, rather than merely harnessing their instrumental power (though whether these two qualities are actually separable is admittedly complicated [6]), it wouldn’t be right to call them metamodernists — though it does seem correct to label the active, conscious pursuit of optimistic narratives by their followers as having a decidedly metamodern sensibility.

What’s important to point out about the power of texts, language, or media pundits to shape personal and collective narratives is that this power is limited: Imagine an elastic band anchored to the Objective Sequence of Events, and the narrative-shifter as a tugging force pulling on that band in a desired direction. At a certain point, if the tension between truth (or a person’s pre-existing conception of truth) and an outside representation/narrative is too great, this elastic band snaps in two: words ring hollow; readers grow skeptical or switch publications. When we share our own stories with others, there’s a reason we frequently embellish but rarely fabricate from scratch: this story-telling is a way of re-narrativizing our own lives, of pulling personal events into a more dramatic teleology but delicately, so that the elastic band doesn’t break. The speed in which we process, re-process, and rewrite new memories is a testament to just how important control over personal narrative is.

VII.

I was recently in an accident which put me in horrific, near-constant pain for some 72 hours. I’d re-read Hotel Concierge‘s “We Need To Sing About Mental Health” a few weeks prior, which outlines the case for the communication of pain (via therapy, liveblogging, and conversation) as an effective palliative step (though a treatment to which one quickly develops drug-like tolerance). The effect certainly resonated upon reading, but it was only after this accident that I was aware of feeling such a strong urge to reach out to others and share this pain, and aware as well of a palpable feeling of pain relief upon doing so. While there’s no doubt that the article had introduced a new level of self-awareness, it seemed equally possible that it had unlocked a new tool, or strengthened an existing one, for pain relief. Believing in a causal link, that is — especially when it came to something as subjective and prone to placebo as pain — essentially strengthened said link. We can imagine a set of benevolent, or malevolent, social scientists capable of deliberately shaping our subjective realities and consciousness by the effective deployment of the right narratives (cf. Plato’s Republic), narratives which tug us in certain directions but which are (or feel) true enough that the elastic band of belief never breaks. Indeed, this very mechanism seems to undergird the influential legacy of figures like Freud or Butler. Perhaps it will be the mechanism that sets us free.


Papillae:

Brian Eno: “Fickle Sun (iii) I’m Set Free”

Sarah Perry: “The Systems of the World”

Endnotes:
[1] “Explore-exploit” here refers to the idea that successful response to a challenge or circumstance is a two-step process of exploring potential solutions and then exploiting the best known option. If a person lives in a foreign city for a year, and wants to eat the best meals possible while there, he must first try out different restaurants in order to discover his favorites. Only then can he know which spots to return to later in the year. Of course, there is a trade-off between exploration and exploitation: The longer he spends trying out different restaurants, the more certain he is that he’s found the best (to his taste) eateries in the city. But he also has less time to exploit this information — if he spends eleven months sampling, he’ll only have one month remaining to return to his favorites. On the other hand, if he spends too little time sampling, he might settle on mediocre food too early. Getting in the highest percentage of enjoyable meals during the year abroad is a matter, then, of optimizing the time spent respectively exploring and exploiting his options. For more, see the Wikipedia entry on multi-armed bandit problems.

[2] Obama has addressed this on the issue of voter disenfranchisement: to believe one’s vote doesn’t matter, or that the democratic process is fundamentally broken and rigged, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. To see one’s vote as powerless, and avoid the ballot box accordingly, is strip one’s vote of all power.

The President’s 2008 acceptance speech into the White House, moreover, demonstrates the power and prevalence of metamodern thought: while empowerment of voters and reaffirmations of American potential is inherent in many political speeches, the rhetoric and argument seems especially strong and, dare I say it, distinctly “metamodern” in sensibility here. The new President-elect notes that Americans have been told “for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful” about the future, and that this victory is a step in the ability to “bend [the arc of history] once more toward the hope of a better day” (he also notes that the generation of young people, born in the eighties and nineties, are a group who “rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy” in service of political optimism). The tone of personal, individual mattering is here too, one which is far-removed from postmodernism’s many subdisciplinary theories of man as trapped inescapably in structural forces —the ability to “bend” the arc of history rather than be bent by it is one immediate example; so too is his opening that “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible… who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer… It’s the answer told by… people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different, that their voices could be that difference.”

It’s worth pointing out that Obama really thinks this way too. Here’s his explanation in The Audacity of Hope for the rise of evangelicalism in contemporary American politics:

Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds — dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets — and coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness are not enough. They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives, something that will relieve a chronic loneliness or lift them above the exhausting, relentless toll of daily life. They need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them — that they are not just destined to travel down a long highway toward nothingness. (202)

And just pages later, on his own embracing of the Christian faith:

I was drawn to the power of the African American religious tradition to spur social change… I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death; rather, it was an active, palpable agent in the world. In the day-to-day work of the men and women I meet in church each day, in their ability to “make a way out of no way” and maintain hope and dignity in the direst of circumstances, I could see the Word made manifest. (207)

To Obama, these passages are a way out of an entirely different sort of double-bind: appealing to both religious and readers in an autobiography designed to leverage political support.

[3] David Foster Wallace’s writing has become shorthand in the literary world for the end of postmodern literature and the beginning of metamodernism, so much so that it’s both drearily cliché and intellectually obligatory to mention his influence. In part, this transitional sensibility can be found in the moral seriousness of Infinite Jest latter half (like Ulysses, the novel’s length and creation time makes it a roadmap for its author’s maturing approach), but it is at its most distilled as a philosophy in his (in)famous Kenyon commencement speech. Wallace opens the speech by attempting to resolve the literary equivalent of the teleology double-bind: noting that telling short anecdotes to start commencement addresses is a trite, tired practice, but doing so anyways because it is effective. He both believes and doesn’t believe in this rhetorical simultaneously, as one might simultaneously believe and disbelieve a human teleological narrative. “This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories,” he says. He goes on then to speak on religion and atheism as examples of personal close-mindedness:

Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.'” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

[…]

The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

The rest of the commencement address speaks to the importance of finding sacred meaning, and treating other humans sacredly in daily encounters, and one begins to suspect the religion example is not just about close-mindedness but is doing double-duty here: for the realities of the religious and nonreligious characters are identical; their worlds do not change, nor have their circumstances or their evidence for belief. But as a result of their belief, we see entirely different outcomes for their faith in the world, allowing a Maslow Hierarchy higher-level belief in cosmic and teleological belonging. Wallace, contrary to Rousseau and Krutch alike, seems to believe that it is entirely possible to construct meaning and belief artificially: “Nowhere in our liberal arts analysis, he writes, “do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad… As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice.”

The message and delivery of this speech, which comes off as truism and cliche, is obviously opposed to what Turner calls in his Metamodernist Manifesto (or Farmer and Obama, elsewhere) the “cynical insincerity” of postmodern literature, politics, and popular culture. But it also distinguishes itself from what Turner references as modernism’s “ideological naivety” — Wallace takes the insights of social construct from postmodernism, but refuses to let that discourage him, to prevent him from “going on” or believing in something sacred about being human. To Wallace, one can simply change mentalities — suspend disbelief — and in doing so, will improve one’s own life. Wallace is speaking to the Kenyon graduating class with this message not so much for reasons of instilling a “tragic understanding of life” in order to mobilize political or social change — the traditional way in which we conceive of cosmic matterings or utopias as being instrumentally valuable (“Instilling” vs. “installing” here seems to capture a key prerequisite — gradual introduction and adoption — of meaningcrafting) . Instead, this construction of belief holds importance for the very individual who constructs it. To Wallace, modern life is filled with boredom, routine, and frustration, a lifelong war in the trenches against banality and the “void of meaninglessness.” The only way to win this war, or at least gain an upperhand, is by making conscious efforts to break from the default mode of life — a mode of life which, with the secularization of society, lacks the built-in social and religious rituals that would normally facilitate the process of meaning creation. The burden has been shifted to the individual, and only hard cognitive work will allow said individual to succeed.

It’s worth noting that Wallace was instrumental in crystallizing the narrative of literary sensibility which opens Section III (a narrative which, it’s further worth mentioning, plays into Wallace’s favor by establishing him as an almost Christ-like “coming” in contemporary fiction).

[4] Of course, chemical hacking can be performed more directly than repeated ritual or behavior modification; man has been using substances for millennia to discover (read: generate) meaning. Here’s Ann Shulgin discussing a 2C-T-4 trip in the infamous PiHKal:

I stopped in the road and looked at Sam and looked past him, and around and up at the grey sky and I knew that everything in the world was doing exactly what it was supposed to be doing; that the universe was on course, and that there was a Mind somewhere that knew everything that happened because it was everything that happened, and that, whether I understood it with my intellect or not, all was well.

If I had the psych credentials to toss my hat in the ring on MDMA’s therapeutic power, I’d attribute it largely to the ability, while on the drug, of patients to reframe their inner narrative of traumatic events in a way that reinforces self-love rather than fear and shame. I have little more to contribute on either of the above mechanisms, so I’ll leave the rest to reader speculation.

[5] See Hotel Concierge‘s writeup on changing television viewership, binge-watching, and serialized vs. procedural narrative.

[6] Here’s Nate Soares of Minding Our Way:

Imagine two people who are about to swim in a 10-person race. They’re both standing on the diving platform. The first one knows how their performance compares to the performance of their opponents, and knows that they have (statistically) a 17% chance of winning. The second one ignores all the odds, and has psyched themselves up, and is certain that they’re going to win… Common wisdom says that the second person is going to push themselves harder (and, thus, increase their relative chances of winning).

[…]

The conviction that the second swimmer feels is not a belief. It’s a feeling. It’s a mental stance; a way of thinking. Maybe they’re feeling excited. Maybe their heart rate is higher. Maybe they have a tingling feeling throughout their body. Maybe their thoughts are more focused and singular. But none of those things are beliefs; they are not statements about the world. I say, learn to detach the conviction from the statistics: You can still enter the mental state we refer to as “certainty that you’re going to win”, without in fact predicting victory with high credence.

As someone who actually swam competitively the majority of my life, and at a relatively high level, I push back strongly on this idea that the second swimmer is merely channeling a “mental state.” Many of the most exceptional athletes I’ve known fit Soares’s description of the “second swimmer,” and all of them were firmly convinced that their success was assured. What Soares doesn’t mention is that high-level success requires summoning this deep self-belief on a daily basis, usually for multiple hours per session and for multiple sessions per day, during practices and training. Such a task is virtually impossible without core, underlying belief.

(Soares would call me an “intermediate rationalist” for endorsing instrumental belief in this paper, so there’s that.)

A few possibilities which allow wiggle room for the above conclusion (that athletic motivation requires real and deep-seated, rather than mobilized and convenient, belief): The grueling training regimens found at the upper echelons of athletic performance require a work ethic which is far removed from humans’ default resting state; motivating to constantly rise to the occasion and expend effort is an entirely different task than convincing a large human population to passively believe something (see narrative-crafting in Section VII). Of course, when it comes to then mobilizing members of this population into strenuous activity, eg voting/activism/charitable work, a genuine belief in the activity at hand both mattering and being possible (the likelier the better, if strain is exerted) seems necessary.