“There is not enough love and kindness in the world to permit us to give any of it away to imaginary beings.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits.
At some point in the online conversations that I’ve been listening to recently about gender and identity, one of the speakers will stop and express their exasperation that they can’t make sense of what’s going on. It’s as if they have run out of road, and they can no longer process the information that they are attempting to deal with. They switch from speaking clearly and articulately, to speaking in stutters and sighs. Their head gets placed in their hands. Their sensemaking circuits are depleted.
In our world of online confrontation and polarisation, which uses up our limited resources of sensemaking at an alarming rate, we could be forgiven for thinking that this feeling of disruption is an existential crisis that is affecting everyone. A crisis that has been precipitated by the unbound forces of postmodernity. What we are feeling, some argue, is the dislodgement of long-established social certainties that are deeply interred in our fundamental substructures of inherited sensemaking processes. In other words, it can feel like the tectonic plates of meaning are shifting, and are sending out shockwaves that are causing ruptures across our culture. It just happens that this is expressed most pointedly in matters related to equality, fairness, self-expression and identity as codified in relation to sex, sexual orientation and gender.
Trans-human identity is the liminal space where this rupture has become apparent. It’s as if we are encamped on near a swampland that sits between the conscious and the unconscious development of the self. The terrain is neither solid nor liquid. There is a marsh-like quality that we are unfamiliar with. According to Elaine Graham, “transhumanism is a futuristic philosophy which celebrates the potential of advanced technologies to augment human functioning to unprecedented degrees, ushering in a new phase of ‘posthuman’ evolution.” The coming of the trans-humanists is being accelerated using digital technologies that are capable of ‘re-enchanting’ the world, and enabling a re-entry to the experience of the participation mystique, in which the spiritual is manifested in all sorts of new psycho-social practices.
What, though, if this is not an existential problem but is an essential problem? So, rather than being a problem of external and environmental incongruence, i.e. as a constellation of intersectional forces that exist outside human experiences, but are instead a manifestation of the emerging collective conscious that no longer uses religious moral and ethical precepts as their guide rail. What if the moment of ‘wokeness’ and the reaction against ‘wokeness’ that so many podcasts and YouTube video discussions are based around, are the result of an essential schism that has manifested as a disrupted sense of self? What if this problem of cultural incongruence is, in fact, a psychic split that is simultaneously manifesting across the collective consciousnesses? What if this is a compensatory adjustment in the collective psyche for changes that have taken place in the deep structure of human social interaction, what Jung calls the collective unconscious, that we have not yet brought into conscious perception?
What if the sex-based rights and gender-identity discussion is pointing towards a more fundamental disruption in the collective unconscious? Clearly, the discussion about gender, biological reality and social conformity, which are the three nodes of this reconfiguration, are becoming highly charged and energetic, which is no surprise given that they are borne out of the increasingly individual and subjective modes of personal expression many people are edging around and towards. We no longer worship collectively, but instead worship at the altar of our individuality.
These are problems that won’t be easily resolved by applying crude techniques of epistemological enquiry that view meaning and meaning making as a zero-sum game. The common reference to ideology that is used to delineate different beliefs is limited in its capacity to explain what form this psycho-social meaning making phenomenon is taking. If we only view this cultural process through the lens of logic and reason, and we do not include feeling or mythology as complementary, then we will continue to be frustrated. People are defined by logos, eros and mythos. A one-sided focus on any one of these forces means that we can’t develop a mature and realistic view of what’s going on before us.
Meaning is not generated within a closed-circuit of reference that is determined solely by logic. Meaning is both felt affectively, and experienced mythologically. However, and despite some of the mischaracterisations of postmodern thinking, meaning is neither infinitely contestable, malleable and transmutable. For something to be meaningful, it needs fixed points of reference. Over eons, these reference points may change and shift, as when cultures shift from a polytheistic religious temperament to a monotheistic temperament. But they are never eliminated from our storehouse of collective sensemaking.
The symbolic framework defines and shapes how each civilisation works and reproduces. The Copernican revolution transformed the understanding of the nature of human experience, for we were no longer situated at the centre of the cosmos. To some extent, we are still getting used to this shift in perception. Since that moment, mankind has sought to deal with both the external reality of being part of an infinite universe, along with the challenge of understanding our own sense of being that enables us to interact with ourselves as meaning makers who have a finite capacity to operate in this infinite reality. We are not gods, as Goethe noted, though we are part of a “power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good” (Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, ‘Faust’).
Pragmatically, we just have to recognise that there are practical limits to our imagination that are defined by obdurate reality. So, we won’t find answers to our problems if we regard everything as dynamic and fluid with no solid underpinning, despite our understanding of the potential for things to change. To counter what Marx thought, all that is solid can’t just ‘melt into air’.
To use an analogy from quantum mechanics, light is both a particle and a wave, existing in paradoxical relationships depending on how we observe and measure the patterns of behaviour. At a quantum level, we reach the point where reality itself is indeterminate and simply the manifestation of probabilities. However, humans are not like this, and we tend to follow patterns of behaviour that are encoded in our biology and physiology. Patterns of behaviour that have been established through the process of evolution of millions of years. We can’t change our biological and physiological reality in the way that we can whistle different tunes, or shift from walking to dancing. Reality doesn’t work like that.
We are ultimately all made from the same stuff that forms the cosmos. The fact that we are matter and energy should be something that is always remarkable to contemplate, especially when we think about the infinite potential of the universe. As far as we know, we are the only beings who derive and have meaningful cognition of our experience in this universe. However, when we anticipate this privilege daily, we have to be more practical and think about how we can use this knowledge to good effect. We need to function as embodied creatures, as mammals and as members of society. We may have a spiritual dimension, but our feet are made of clay.
Furthermore, we are bound by the forces of gravity, inertia and, as Immanuel Kant demonstrated, the apperception of time and space. There is a fundamental, observable, and logical basis to our reality that enables us to define every other material object in the universe. To believe otherwise is to live in the world of outlandish dreams, religion and metaphysics. If faith and dogma determine our reality, then take your pick and enjoy finding the most appropriate story that might explain how things work and what guides our development. We need more certainty than subjective interpretation, or why would we bother to contemplate doing anything? We are compelled to move forward and advance in time, and there is nothing we can do about this. Furthermore, we can’t change the structure of our reality, only attempt to understand it better.
The question many are now seeking to address, is what are the new processes of sensemaking that we need to incorporate and adapt to that will bring a sense of resolution and healing, rather than promoting disruption and rupture? We’ve lived through disruptive times before, of course. Many of the problems that are confounding people today have been a lot worse in different periods of social history. War, famine, genocide, pogroms, industrial and climate disruption. All are spectres that have haunted people around the planet for millennia.
What’s different about our present meaning crisis, it seems, is the extent to which this is an introverted process that is haunting people from the inside. It is a crisis of identity and the self, rather than a crisis of survival, competition with others, or a shift from in the material base of society. The internet has accelerated the process of introverted sense making. This started with the development of novels and mass literacy, but has been accelerated with electronic gaming, social networks and the infinite potential of communications and media production technology.
While operating in an extrovert and sensory mode, most people can engage with practical project that are manifested beyond their own bodies. On the internet, social interaction is entirely driven by symbolic and virtual processes. The introverts among us are well-equipped to deal with this process, but the extroverts find the process of self-reflection and the manifestation of a personal sense of identity much harder to deal with. We just have to learn how to construct a coherent symbolic framework that makes sense not only to introverts, but to extroverts as well.
What’s different in the present age, and how might this be exacerbating our inability to establish a sense of balance and equilibrium? These issues are highlighted in the description of Metamodernity, which can be summed up as the period that follows postmodernity, which offers a response to the psychosocial processes that modernity and postmodernity themselves brought forth. Metamodernism, to use Hanzi Freinacht’s phrase, is an attempt to bring about some kind of reconstruction after the deconstruction.
A couple of things define our age:
- Globalisation: the internet, commerce and media have all constellated the promise of the global village, so many people are now as likely to connect with people internationally than they are in their own neighbourhood.
- Institutional Sensemaking: public institutions, such as media, education, trade unions, and so on, no longer hold the central sway in people’s live in the same way that they used to. Media organisations, for example, have gone from defining a sense of national identity, to precipitating partisan Infowars.
- Personal Sensemaking: rather than being part of a homogenous religious community, many people are now more invested in the market as a provider of social value and virtue. Faith remains useful, but more as a way of maintaining cultural and social differences, a sense of heritage or a personal set of values. Religion is no longer the all-encompassing force of civilisation, instead we (those of us in the West at least) are tolerant of multiple religions.
- Decentralised Value: our sense of belonging is now articulated through an intersectional or fluid process of identity comparison, in which we have the technology to represent ourselves in multiple forms that enable a sense of transhuman experience.
Many factors can be included in this manifold of issues and challenges. What’s apparent to many, however, is that we don’t really have a collective way of identifying what these problems consist of or how we might go about dealing with them. A reliance on the meaning structures we’ve dependent on in the past is not likely to be of assistance in the future, unless they are adapted and reconditioned to suit the new circumstances.
Many of the conversations and discussions I’ve been listening to are an attempt to understand the role of gender, both as a manifestation of personal identity, and a collective expression of the social structure. The conflation of gender and sex, seems to be the fulcrum on which this disruption is pivoting as two sensemaking paradigms are crashing into one another. Those who advocate for a transhuman experience, which is being widened to encompass a fluid sense of personal identity that can go as far as trans-species identification. These are the idealists in the sense that they believe that reality is mailable and flexible.
On the other hand, the realists see the need to maintain logical order and a consistency of terms that ensures that our experience of reality does not escape us. The moon is neither made of cheese, nor does it disappear when we stop looking at it. Reality is both phenomenologically and noumenonologically consistent, and that, as Immanuel Kant pointed out, “we are justified in applying the concepts of the understanding to the world as we know it by making a priori determinations of the nature of any possible experience.”
The sensemaking process is challenging and needs to be simultaneously analytically assessed while also being synthetically assessed. Einstein taught us that we can’t rely on one single mode of analysis, for:
“Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things easily achieve such an authority over us that we forget their earthly origins and accept them as unalterable given. Thus, they come to be stamped as “necessities of thought,” “a priori givens,” etc. The path of scientific advance is often made impassable for a long time through such errors. For that reason, it is by no means an idle game if we become practised in analysing the long commonplace concepts and exhibiting those circumstances upon which their justification and usefulness depend, how they have grown up, individually, out of the givens of experience. By this means, their all-too-great authority will be broken. They will be removed if they cannot be properly legitimated, corrected if their correlation with given things be far too superfluous, replaced by others if a new system can be established that we prefer for whatever reason” (Einstein 1916, 102).
We must keep faith with the process of empirical grounding, otherwise we will return to superstition and magical thinking. That does not mean, however, that we exclude imagination, intuition, feeling and mythos. What we need is to maintain a functional balance between logos, eros and mythos, and not do anything that we may regret, or which can’t be reversed. We are not gods, we can’t transubstantiate.