Refunctioning Community Media – Metamodernism

Anselm Strauss suggests that our social and “group life is organised around communication.” At face value the apparent certainty of this statement is not controversial, however, when we examine this claim in greater detail, we can sense that for many practitioners of professional and industrial-scale communication, it has the potential to go against the common grain. This is because, as a basic statement of principle, it is contrary to many of the widespread explanations of the communication process, and the theories that dominates much of contemporary mass communications thinking and practice. Strauss contended that the organisation of social communication cannot be reduced to a defined set of processes in which the “transmission of ideas” is simply carried “from the head of one person to that of another.” For example, if we look at one of the dominant motifs of popular culture, we will see that it is often suggested that our consciousness can be understood in the same way that computer programmes are understood. This quasi-scientific motif suggests that all we need to do to enhance our lives is to improve the data that is inputted to our computer-like brains, and that we will benefit by periodically upgrading the operating system on which it runs. Indeed, it’s got to the point where we can now, quite literally, augment our organic operating system with cybotic technical components that can add brain-like storage, processing and data sorting capacity.

According to Strauss, however, communication is nothing like this. For Strauss communication is the process by which we adopt and signify “shared meanings.” Meanings that are operationally and symbolically shared and exchanged between one another. By ‘shared meanings’ Strauss is loosely recalling and specifying the signs, images and symbols that we use in all levels of social communication, both in day-to-day life, and in specialist technical contexts. So, rather than thinking of communication as a positivistic process, i.e. as a set of algorithmically designed instructions, like an operating system, Strauss argues that we need to stress how we form repeating and sustained patterns of communication that are “sufficiently alike so that persons understand each other.” In other words, Strauss is following a hermeneutic and constructivist tradition in which we posit that we communicate socially, and that these modes of communication should be understood in abductive terms, and therefore in socialmeaning terms.

As has been noted previously, socialmeaning suggests that our ability to access and engage in the symbolic realm is shared through our collective unconscious. This is what we see reflected and expressed in our culture and media. However, while McLuhan’s  adage that the ‘media is the message’ still stands (McLuhan, 1967), it is essential to note that both the media and the message are shaped by and rooted in deep archetypal configurations that give rise to active and individually resonant psychological structures. These archetypal patterns of social sense-making don’t change as easily as we might like to think. They have been operational over millennia, and to think that we moderns are free from them is a fallacy and a misconception of the independence of our personal sovereignty.  Assimilating what Strauss offers suggests, then,  that we will be better served if we accept that this process is one in which “terms arise out of and in turn permit community action” (Strauss, 2017, p. 150). Put simply, without our shared understandings, as expressed in our interactions, and in our culture and our media, we would cease to be able to get things done.

As has been described in previous sections of this thread, the practices of shared and socially generated meanings are a focal point for socialmeaning. They are also the basis of the metamodern critique. Metamodernism is an analysis of contemporary society that brings together a wide-ranging analysis of the veracity and sustainability of current forms of social organisation, specifically the challenge we face in seeking to live an authentic and meaningful life. The meaning crisis is typified as the practice of large-scale social mimesis. The meaning crisis is a response to the widespread, empty routines of consumerism, it is typified by the cult of celebrity and personality, it is haunted by an obsession with technical efficiency, it is grounded in the facilitation of convenience culture, and it is characterised by the dynamically shifting identity disputes of the so-called culture wars.

The meaning crisis is a moment when we realise that the maps that we have previously held in our minds, depended on to provide boundary certainty, and lived by on a day-to-day basis, are no longer applicable. The meaning crisis is the redrawing of these boundaries and the map. It is a liberation from inherited social strictures, and it is an indication of the acceleration of the globalised society. In its most debased form we are people under a narrow collection of global brands: Coke, Nike, Apple, and so on. This globalised culture, however, and in this particular phase of the emergence of the global society, interest is only given to servicing the needs of the diminishing number of transnational global corporations (Surwillo, 2017). Metamodernism is a reaction to the stuffing of our pliant minds with highly mediatised, doggedly formulaic, and endlessly prurient content. We’ve had the endless flicking of the remote control searching for watchable content, now we have the Netflix binge!

Metamodernism can perhaps be summed up best by Hanzi Freinacht who says that “after the deconstruction must come the reconstruction” (Freinacht, 2017). By which Freinacht means, once we have done with identifying what is wrong with our social experience, it is our responsibility to at least attempt to put some of these things right. If we are concerned about climate change and its impact on poorer communities, we have to find ways to make that concern matter. If we are concerned about inequality or social misinformation, then we have to find ways to practically support people in making or demanding changes that will have a material impact on their lives. Metamodernism is not neutral to social division and inequities, but it does include the ethical and moral dimension that we have to do something about these inequalities that goes beyond picking the skin from the top of the problem.

Slogans, theories and virtuous positions are all well and good, but they have to be tied with the development and building-up of individual and social capacity in the form of social democratic, eco-libertarian ideals. Metamodernism, then, is not only a theoretical and developmental critique of the meaning crisis, it is also a movement of people who are attempting to actively deal with, and respond to, the pervasive and progressively taut sense of meaninglessness that many people report feeling. Metamodernism is a creative, reflective and developmental practice. Contemporary society has been effectively critiqued by postmodern thinkers on postmodern terms, but as Hanzi Freinacht points out, this is no longer felt to be satisfactory. Postmodernism, it is argued, is good at pointing to the problems, but it offers no tangible and workable solutions. And we really do need workable solutions.

This focus on workable solutions is one aspect of the metamodern critique that is shared with the pragmatist tradition of Dewey, Pierce, Rorty, James, Cornell-West and others. This tradition acknowledges that rather than running with selective options and choices between different metanarratives, we can, instead, take an active role in specifying, and then re-shaping, the metaphors and narratives that we inherit and which we collectively are expected to live by. The pragmatist tradition argues that there can be no external fulcrum or vantage-point from which order and validation can be brought or given to human life. Instead, any order that we achieve is only found within the realms of human social experience, not the realms of the fantastical or the metaphysical.

As John Dewey noted, “like all facts subject to observation and specification, they are spatial-temporal, not eternal” (Dewey, 2016, p. 52). And like all solutions, we will find the source of those solutions in the practical and ethical interaction of people acting in community with one another today. So, rather than seeking answers in metanarratives, ideologies or theories, which promise a transcendent future and period of glorious empowerment for the “proletariat” (Toynbee, 1946), we need to look at the human drivers of change, comprehension and action.

Let’s take a couple of examples. In socialmeaning terms we often use metaphors as an effective (action oriented) and affective (values oriented) way to define the scope and options based on which we engage with others socially. Successful metaphors can be said to offer valuable and functional affordances which can be operationalised. However, these affordances are only operationally effective/affective to the extent that they get certain types of job done. Metanarrative help us to depict certain kinds of problems that need to be answered, and they do this by offering a contingent model of reality for us, which is able specify the kind of options that are available to us to apply within that that specified reality. If we want to build with wood, we must use nails, hammers and saws.

So, the common metaphors of our age fluctuate between different stories of operational engagement. On the one hand we are sometimes said to be living in an ecologically defined world, as represented by the biosphere; while on the other hand, we are sometimes said to be living in an informationally defined world, as characterised by the noosphere. We might also be said to be living in a systems defined world, as defined by the technosphere, and so on. Where the metamodern argument gains traction, however, is that in the future we will need to attend to different levels and types of personal and social developmental in order to sustainably engage with the world.

Metamodernism recognises, therefore, that we need to be able to apply variable insights to different situations and different problems. Metamodernism also recognises that we will need to operate across, and within, different frames of reference, and be able to switch between them accordingly. Linda Hutcheon describes this as the ability to switch between alternative frames of engagement (Hutcheon, 1994). The ironist in operational terms must be able to switch between one public stance and another. Vivien Burr articulates this issue when she asks:

“If our knowledge of the world, our common ways of understanding it, is not derived from the nature of the world as it really is, where does it come from? The social constructionist answer is that people construct it between them. It is through the daily interactions between people in the course of social life that our versions of knowledge become fabricated” (Burr, 1995, p. 4).

Metamodernism therefore builds on the tradition of pragmatism and symbolic interactionism, i.e. as social/symbolic psychology, along with many other developmental threads. Metamodernism insists that we occupy social positions in time and space that are oriented through, by, and with meaning. In this way it is possible to attest that we live in a meaning-oriented society, and that on this basis we might describe ourselves, above all else, as meaning-oriented beings. In the metamodern critique of the globalised and multidimensional world we inhabit, which is shaped by postmodern flows of information and images (Baudrillard, 1983, 1994; Lyotard, 1984), our efforts to communicate and engage with one another are driven, not by utility or function, in their reductive senses, but rather by the desire to find our experiences phenomenologically, existentially and psychologically meaningful. The great American pragmatist psychologist William James expressed the difference in these terms:

“The actual universe is a thing wide open, but rationalism makes systems, and systems must be closed. For men in practical life perfection is something far off and still in process of achievement. This for rationalism is but the illusion of the finite and relative: the absolute ground of things is a perfection eternally complete” (James, 2000, p. 13).

Pausing momentarily, we might wish to consider what Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch propose in relation to our desire and instinct to live a meaningful life:

“We must not only unstop our ears so that we may hear our god speak to us, should he deign to do so; We must also seek to live in a kind of society in which such meanings as we have been exploring in this work are acknowledged to be real and worthy of respect and honour – and in which men are therefore also respected and honoured as creators and bearers of such meanings. If we cannot live in such a society, we shall find ourselves engaged collectively in the brutal task of stamping out those meanings on the grounds of some supposed social utility or for some overpowering cause’ – a frightful enterprise that modern man has undertaken (and is still undertaking) in this present century” (Polanyi & Prosch, 1975, p. 181).

As such, the metamodern critique is a call for both new ideas and a renewed “kind of spiritual development of the average person.” The metamodern society must, according to Hanzi Freinacht, incorporate the social goal of interpersonal subjective development from which we are encourage to aim for,  “not only higher subjective states in each of us, but also to help more of us develop and integrate greater inner depths, and – if possible – to develop our ability to think more abstract thoughts, to cognitively grasp and relate to more complex realities” (Freinacht, 2019).

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