The point of our field is to take responsibility for cultivating the kinds of dispositions and capacities that are needed in this time between worlds. This is the middle of seven serious posts, so let me be silly for a moment. If I had to write the script for, let’s say, a puppet show about the heroes of the next few decades, the main characters would be: the undertaker, the bouncer, the artist and the midwife. If puppet shows are too silly for you, think of them as emerging archetypes.
We are called upon to be undertakers who offer dignified death and gratitude for all that must end. The institutions and norms that served us well in a stable climate will not be adequate in a world of regular wildfires, flooded homes and nuclear hurricanes. And the ways of knowing and relating and valuing that served us well before the internet will not fit a world where artificial intelligence and robotics reshape the economy and synthetic biology and gene editing change the very idea of life. We have no choice but to let the patterns that are clearly not working to die well.
I’m on a mailing list with the rock star and philosopher Alex Ebert
, and he brings almost every discussion back to the failure to properly face up to death, to a comical extent, as if 1+1=death and 2+2=death! Yet death gives us life in a non-trivial way, and it is necessary for regeneration and metamorphosis. Death is also a helpful shift of register to help us escape the growth-to-goodness fallacy
in developmental thinking because it is not another step at the top of the ladder, but an ever-present possibility that highlights the absurdity and unreality of smooth progression through life.
Developmental models are great teachers and reveal much that would otherwise go undisclosed, but development is neither happiness nor virtue, and growth is not the same as renewal but often antithetical to it. In her chapter in Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds Bonnitta Roy instead offers
“a view where maturity and ripeness, senescence and decay as well as disappearances and vanishings create crucial openings for the game of life to go on. Neither progress, nor complexity, nor compounding evolutionary pressures can account for metamorphosis. Metamorphosis requires openings, and openings require the old form to be taken out of existence… Appreciate Plato, Kant, the Founding Fathers, the western canon and the ways of modernity. Appreciate them both for having brought you here, and for leaving themselves behind. This is the spirit of metamorphosis.”
Yet we can’t let everything of value die, and we need to be bouncers too, people strong enough to refuse entry to the merchants of ecocide, slavery, and authoritarianism – “You shall not pass!!”, as Gandalf once said. It matters that Ukraine resists imperialism and genocide and it matters that the USA avoids civil war, and remains a democratic republic, however comprised and corrupted the political system may be. And it matters, for instance, that India remains a secular democratic state and not a proto-fascist theocracy. Political freedom is indispensable for the kind collaborative creativity that might allow us to address our myriad collective action problems. By ‘bouncers’ I mean a spirit of protection and resistance rather than just the military, but in practice it can mean a willingness, in extremis, to take up arms to protect what would otherwise be lost.
We will need artists
more than ever, to fashion the future and imagine new worlds into being. If we wanted to sound more distinctive we could speak of ‘imagineers’, or ‘imagination activists’ or ‘prophets’ or ‘alchemists’ or the french ‘animateurs’, or perhaps shamans, but mostly I mean true art in all its receptive, descriptive and generative power. In the last few decades, it feels like we have relegated art to a kind of private and privileged commodity, rather than the beating heart of the common endeavour of cultural renewal. The prospect of a relatively good transformation happening will depend, at the very least, on artistic vision along the lines of something like Ben Okri’s ‘existential creativity’, an aesthetic orientation infused with the real possibility of the world ending. That sensibility brings with it a richer relationship to death and the cultivation of a way to transcend and includes the psychological hold of the images and patterns of the conventional world. As Okri
“We have to find a new art and a new psychology to penetrate the apathy and the denial that are preventing us making the changes that are inevitable if our world is to survive. We need a new art to waken people both to the enormity of what is looming and the fact that we can still do something about it.”
Creating the affordances for that kind of art to arise will probably require tempering our fixation with work and taking leisure time seriously as a public good. As Joseph Pieper puts it in his famous essay: “Leisure, it must be remembered, is not a Sunday afternoon idyll, but the preserve of freedom, of education and culture, and of that undiminished humanity which views the world as a whole.”
And we’ll need midwives with the skill and care to help new worlds be born well into our wayward and sometimes homicidal human family. Just as most promising businesses fail for lack of finance and support, much of what might save the world from itself will be fragile at first and require exceptional neo-natal care.
As we begin to question consensus reality, and open ourselves more fully to whatever life is asking of us now, new dispositions appear to co-arise. This way of being can be described as metamodern
, but it is essentially a spiritual sensibility because it is about the vitality of our perception of the nature, meaning and purpose of life as a whole. The sensibility in question is not propositional but its texture includes the following orientations towards the past, present and future, which can be thought of as the post-conventional aesthetic. The term post-conventional is derived from Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral psychology, but I am expanding its scope here to include at least some of the following:
- Post-tragic (knowing life as tragic and beautiful, meaningful, purposeful)
- Post-rational (respect for intuitive, mythic and mystical ways of knowing)
- Post-extrinsic (societal purpose reconceived towards intrinsic value)
- Post-exploitation (historically aware, and vigilant about abuses of power)
- Post-tribal (seeking unity in diversity of all kinds, but not naively)
These five sensibilities are indicative rather than exhaustive, and are selected to describe an aesthetic rather than a sociological analysis which might potentially include post-capitalist (Paul Mason), post-democracy (Colin Crouch), post-materialist (Ronald Ingelhart), post-individualist (Paul Dallmayr) and others.
sensibility is described by Zak Stein and Marc Gafni as ‘a station of the self ’ in which we move from pre-tragic (all is well, every problem can be solved) through tragic (all is lost, life is dark and despair abounds) towards post-tragic in which we transcend and include tragedy into a fuller and richer and ultimately more real and meaningful view of life.
And why contend with tragedy at all? Because tragedy is the meaning and mattering of life. The more life matters, the more vulnerable we are to tragedy. The concept applies beyond the self to society as a whole. The pandemic wrought tragedy in abundance, the enduring emergency of climate change is tragic, grief caused by unnecessary war is tragic, and widespread human addiction and distraction through surveillance capitalism is tragic because – individually and collectively - we urgently need to concentrate on what truly matters and how we should therefore live.
sensibility is partly about weaking the hold of orthodox economic and utilitarian thinking on our imaginations and about finding a sound social and ecological basis for enduring for everyone, if possible. Perspectiva Trustee Ian Christie puts it like this:
“We have had two centuries of a civilisation of unparalleled material progress, abundance and development based on extrinsic values (self-interest, materialism, economic growth, keeping up, social mobility); intrinsic 'beyond-self' and religious values have periodically been reasserted but they have lost their institutional hold and centrality to the stories that make sense of our lives. The extrinsic values celebrated by industrial society are now under real pressure in the West as scarcities begin to return and confidence in the future wanes, for good reasons of ecological disruption, social fragmentation and economic dysfunction and inequality.”
economic thinking is the most tangible expression of the post-extrinsic at scale, but it goes beyond reconceiving the purpose of the macroeconomy. At a personal level being post-extrinsic is about the related features of life; including ourselves as consumers, whether we work too hard, what time and wellbeing means to us, and what we care about most.
In this sense post-extrinsic thinking is not so much about the economy or politics as meta-economic and meta-political
discussions about underlying societal purposes and what kinds of viable futures we might look forward to creating together.
inclination is about recognising the limits of the intellectual function in its ability to grasp what is happening in the world today, while also respecting ways of knowing that are not antithetical to reason, but attempt to work alongside it. In Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things
this case is developed in depth, namely that we can know the world in several ways, particularly through the four distinct functions of science, reason, intuition and imagination and that a proper understanding depends on all of them.
Closely related to the post-rational (which is mostly epistemic) is the post-secular
, Jurgen Habermas’s term for the persistence and resurgence of religion in society and the need to be in dialogue with it, also developed by Charles Taylor
The need to be post-exploitation
refers to a reckoning with history, with power, with class, with race, with patriarchy, with colonialism, and with coercion of all forms. Slavery is the rawest and most brutal form of exploitation, and enforced servitude or defacto slavery
is still widespread today in many forms. Exploitation can be brutal, but it can also be relatively subtle and includes conscious and unconscious bias against people of colour; it also includes the unpaid mental, emotional and domestic labour undertaken mostly by women that is often taken for granted.
To consider how exploitation permeates society systemically and what it would mean to move beyond it, Roberto Unger’s definition of a progressive
is helpful: “someone who wants to see society reorganised, part-by-part and step-by-step, so that ordinary men and women have a better chance to live a larger life". By larger life he means a “a life of greater intensity, of greater scope, and of greater capability". To seek to be post-exploitation is also fundamentally Kantian in the sense that it’s about the resolve to see and treat people always as ends and never just as means to other ends.
The post-tribal sensibility is about recognising the problem of political polarisation and epistemic filter bubbles. It means facing up to the fact that humans cannot continue to be tribal in the destructive sense that leads to war but nonetheless have to be tribal in the sense of kinship and identity and reciprocal belonging that is grounded in a workable scale. This perspective implicates technology and the underlying business models of social media, but it is also about our complicity in that and opportunities to create alternatives.
In all these cases, ‘post’ is mostly about transcending and including rather than opposition as such. And of course, these five perspectives mutually inform each other. The post-tragic disposition naturally gives rise to an acceptance of limits that informs the post-extrinsic imperative, which in turn depends upon forms of social imagination that arise from post-rational ways of knowing and give rise to the desire for forms of life that are post-exploitation and which create cultural and institutional possibilities that make it more likely we can become post-tribal.
Having considered the case for pro-actively establishing a new field
, clarifying the nature of the epoch
we will be working in, the method
it needs to employ and here the ethos that characterises it, we are now ready to think about our resolve
– what we have to commit to and what it means to get real.
Links to all the articles in this series: