The modern self is undergoing a historical change that will transform identity, culture and society in a profound way. Although entrenched, reactionary interests are mounting a serious campaign to both drive back and direct the building force of this powerful shift, in hindsight their efforts will seem rather like a crew of workers that showed up to a tsunami with buckets in hand.
To the extent that they have successfully pushed back on this pressure, it has merely driven these currents even deeper into the human psyche, the dynamic terrain of the self, and the common ground of our human experience.
This modern self, created by Shakespeare and charted by Freud, has been under a tremendous, unsustainable strain. The imaginative bounds mapped out by Western culture, psychology and modern political and social theory are no longer to adequate to contain, explain and advance the human condition.
A Crisis of Meaning
In every archaeological fragment of human activity and settlement, we find traces of efforts by our predecessors to make meaning in the world around them, in the carvings, decorations and ornaments left behind.
Storytelling goes back at least to the vivid murals that early humans painted on the cave walls of Lascaux more than 17,000 years ago, perhaps as far back as our first controlled fire 400,000 years before that.
Without meaning people may not die, but they will cease to live. This is why ancient courts and their subjects buried themselves with the monarch. Life no longer had any meaning for them.
The burden of meaning is heavier than ever. This is because traditional authority has eroded almost completely away. A similar erosion in authority occurred when feudalism gave way to industrial might and gave rise to liberal humanism. The democratic institutions and political and economic experiments that evolved out of this are increasingly out of touch with the needs of society, and the authority of the state is in absolute crisis. And in fact, both the state and the market have already lost touch with a significant margin of their constituents, because they no longer speak their language or understand their world. Not only have they lost empathy with the current generation, this loss of language is also quite literally true as new vernaculars are continually being created in technological and the “outer” or “abandoned” spaces.
Although this erosion of authority looks different in different spaces, it is by no means simply unidirectional. We can think about America, where just ten years ago the federal government was a trusted authority and source of reliable data. Like any institution, they carried their reputation far beyond the point where they were deserving of it. Now, the majority of people today already realize that the federal government is not at all an objective, disinterested party.
As modern governments deploy propaganda and misinformation in their attempts to police increasingly permeable national boundaries and hide their growing obsolescence, they will inevitably diminish their own authority even further.
While traditional institutions and authorities may continue to function and to flex their power in cultural backwaters for some centuries to come—this will probably result in the quick rise and fall of many petty tyrants—the breakdown of authority is first and foremost an essential shift in consciousness, occurring in the deep mind, below the level of conscious awareness. The shift will slow-explode the political and social structures that preceded it, those bequeathed to us from the industrial revolution, just as rising power of industrialization had crushed feudalism.
Beneath the Shallow Colony
These shifts in consciousness occur throughout history in waves of varying intensity, approaching and retreating, so measurements of their strength and duration in the short term can be bewildering. From the surface it is hard to understand what is going on beneath, and few are interested in delving down below the firmer, more structured layers of their own consciousness. Many, we may imagine, have allowed the faculty to atrophy to such a degree that they are presently unable to do so.
Consciousness itself has undergone a process that some observers have called colonization. This is undoubtedly accurate, but these colonized segments do not reach very deep roots into the collective consciousness. The elements of colonization rely on behavioral mechanisms, require continual input, and necessitate strict controls.
Underneath this rather shallow colony, deep currents run. It is here that the massive shifts are occurring. Consider an earthquake. We can predict that it will do damage somewhere and somewhen, but don’t know exactly how it is all going to shake out, so to speak. As it turns out, earthquake activity does strictly follow the mathematics of a power rule in the relation between its intensity and frequency.
Pareto Distributions and the Renaissance
Historical data on earthquakes conform precisely to a Pareto distribution in that the Richter scale of an earthquake within an identified region can be reasonably estimated as a function of the time between events.
In other words, there’s some pretty good evidence that our consciousness is due for a pretty sizable schism. For one, the pressure has been building since the last time a shift of this type occurred and the church lost its hegemony, beginning in the Renaissance. With the “death of God” came profound disillusionment as humanity faced an objectively meaningless and thus absurd world. Along with this realization came a terrible mantle of power and responsibility. In the words of Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman, “The nineteenth century has decided there is no god and and Man must take in hand all work he used to shirk with an idle prayer.” That is, man could either take control of his own destiny or he would be no better then an animal. In civilization lay his only hope.
Together with the promise of science and industry this very naturally gave birth to humanism, which quickly met its worst enemy in the guise of humanity itself.
The Problem of Power
To face an absurd world one must become either a worm or great, but to become great was to become a worm again, albeit a great one. Perhaps no one has ever felt as deeply as Nietzsche they need for humanity to become great and perhaps no one has felt as deeply as Nietzsche a bitter disappointment that it is not.
Had Nietzsche been willing to give the human species the benefit of natural time (after all, the universe is not set to the clock of the human heart) he might have found cause for hope. As is too often the case with the passionate, he was unable to unpin himself from the temporal. But like the Jainist hussars of Compte Germond du Russaille, “we who will not suffer to die weeping on the carcasses of flogged horses” must take a longer view.
The early existentialists, who understood this well enough, advocated a program of rigorous action. Understanding that philosophical systems, however helpful, were ultimately meaningless, they feared becoming mired down in them, sickened by too much consciousness. This is precisely what happened to Wittgenstein. He spent his academic career constructing the hermetic grammar of thought in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and the rest of his natural life dismantling it, as we see in the posthumously released Blue and Brown Books.
Indeed, helplessness and hopelessness (Kierkegaard’s despair) are the fruits of inaction, and those who are unable to act for themselves are trod upon by history.
Act they must, and act they did, making wars, revolutions, literature and art; in short, history. But despite their great intentions and exalted rhetoric, humankind seemed most determined to test its destructive capacity.
Modernism’s Great War
Modernism inserted itself into the world’s imagination at the end of the First World War, in reaction to the realities of a war-torn world and the terrible possibilities of human potential; a world in which the impossible had occurred, and would continue to occur.
Modernism refused to grapple with this reality, retreating instead into an imaginative space, and deciding to create the world in its own image. It was thus fraught at the beginning with a neurotic anxiety. Like the impossible geometry of an Escher drawing, it was destined to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.
Modernism’s imaginative boundaries were continually encroached and ate away at by life itself. This gave culture-making a heroic, tragic and often patriotic aspect.
The crass material world was outside of civilization, essential to it—especially its industrial apparatus, which created the necessary wealth—but separate and subservient. The cultural priests were left free to make meaning, and they would meet up with reality some time down the line. Of course, this vital appointment was perpetually deferred, and a crisis was inevitable:
The Postmodern Shrapnel
The vast weirdness of life itself exploded modernism wide open. That condition, the postmodern condition, is that of so much scattered cultural shrapnel—memes, tropes, figures of speech, images, slogans, metaphors, fables—across a post-apocalyptic landscape. This is the imaginative space (and often literal space) in which reconstruction has begin, because grappling with this space, the ruptured landscape, is now inescapable, if only because the colonized, civilized space is absolutely sterile.
The other imaginative space is space itself—a place of unlimited possibility. Reconciling this paradox, the limited and the limitless, is the metamodern imagination’s essential task.
We have left the shores of postmodernism (after modernism) for the horizon of metamodernism (beyond modernism) when we begin to take responsibility for the condition we find ourselves in.
The frantic meaning-making inclinations of modernism, with its impossible epistemologies, its hyper-preoccupation with symbols, structures, numbers, taxonomies, arcane knowledge, archaeologies, disciplines, indexes, lexicons and esoteric traditions can now be viewed clearly for what it was. Modernism was merely spinning, larvae-like, an elaborate and fantastic mythology to cocoon itself for an epic transformation. The growth of the self was the whole point. And in fact, the exponential growth of this self, and its violent, rupturing birth, is one of the many pressures that has exploded modernism.
But half-born as it is, this self is no butterfly, no Superman, no Atman, no Auteur—at least, not yet.
Comedy, Tragedy, and Tiny Monsters
This half-born self (discovering itself to be completely naked) scavenges the wreckage and debris of modernism to find enough banana leaves to cover itself. From the ruins, too, it builds a ladder to climb up out of up out of the pit it had fallen into, and then a scaffolding to begin its upward ascent, its interminable journey to the heavens.
Most reasonable people get a little nervous when one begins to speak of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. The concept has been attractive to so many madmen and the justification of too many horrors. On this dangerous ground, the problem of power is a central one. Is it really any surprise that in striving to actualize our potential humankind would first become a monster? Will it be any surprise when it happens again? What we can probably expect to see is the rise and fall of many tiny monsters as rapidly recycling power and group psychology propel one leader after the other into the spotlight.
An essential shift in orientation is underway: humanity must learn to view their plight in a comic (cosmic) rather than a tragic (human) perspective. Discussing the two orientations in an interview, absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco called comedy “more tragic than comedy. Tragedy has rules, man battling fate, man destroyed by fate and by laws, but comedy has no laws. It’s ridiculous because there’s no fate.”
Auteur of the Self and its Personal Mythology
To master an absurd world, the self must prepare for an act of self-authorization and self-creation; an audacious, willful, blasphemous act. An Auteur is impelled rather than compelled, and is to able to bring others together under the power of this vision, inspiring and empowering them. The Auteur’s quest not at all mythological—it’s absolutely existential—but because of its cosmic proportions, it is mythic.
The Auteur borrows from culture—any culture—to create its own meanings and own mythology, and abandons them when no longer useful. Identity and personality are undergoing a major, historical alteration vis-à-vis this new self, and it will transform the structures of society just as radically.
Emerging themes to look for as the Comic Age commences are a resurgence of the Carnival and the Masquerade, a preoccupation with eternal recurrence and rebirth, and an essentially metadiegetic inclination toward meaning-making and storytelling. In other words, storytellers will leave the bounds of our old stories and systems and make entirely new meanings from what they glean and gather. This is not a dialectical exercise. The metamodern imagination is interested in creating something entirely new, and has no fidelity to old ideologies, narratives, or traditions.
This meaning-making is playful and irrational—it is learning. Unlike the frantic, forced play of modernism, which was highly self-conscious and anxious, this new play is as pure and light as a child’s play. But it shouldn’t be considered frivolous or unimportant.
We face economic uncertainty, global chaos and monster storms in our near-future and we only have 5 billion years to figure things out before our sun consumes the rest of its nuclear fuel and turns to the Earth in covetous hunger. In the meantime, our story’s hapless hero blunders into one catastrophe after another. It has all the elements of a great story: tension, suspense, and a surprise ending.
It is that same human story that interests us all so much, and that same old question that keeps us coming back.
What’s going to happen next?