Atomization: the kaleidoscope of meaning

Gangnam Style! What’s it about?

(Who knows!)

Gangnam Style! What genre is it?

(Who cares!)

In our present, atomized mode of meaningness, cultures, societies, and selves cannot hold together. They shatter into tiny jagged shards. We shake the broken bits together, in senseless kaleidoscopic, hypnotic reconfigurations, with no context or coherence.

This may sound like a problem. Overall, my description of the atomized mode may sound like a panicked condemnation. However, there is much to like about atomization, and—I will suggest—it provides vital resources for constructing the next, fluid mode.

Atomized culture

The previous, subcultural mode failed because individual subcultures did not provide enough breadth or depth of meaning; and because cliquish subsocieties made it too difficult to access the narrow meaningness they hoarded.

The global internet exploded that. Everything is equally available everywhere—which is fabulous! Now, there are no boundaries, so bits of culture float free. Unfortunately, with no binding contexts, nothing makes sense. Meanings arrive as bite-sized morsels in a jumbled stream, like sushi flowing past on a conveyer belt, or brilliant shards of colored glass in a kaleidoscope.

With no urge for context to make culture understandable, everything is equally appealing everywhere. The atomized mode returns to the universalism of the countercultural mode—but by default, rather than design. In the 1960s, for the first time, everyone in an American generation listened to the same music, regardless of genre—as an expression of solidarity. Now, everyone in the world listens to the same music, regardless of genre, again—just because it’s trending on YouTube.

Gangnam Style has been watched 2.9 billion times on YouTube.1 Even counting repeat views, it’s probably well-known to most young people on the planet. Its genre is, in fact, K-pop; but may be the only K-pop song most Westerners have ever heard.

Genre—which defined many subcultures—has disintegrated. Atomization seemed at first like subculturalism taken to an extreme, but it is a qualitatively new mode. K-pop may be a subculture in Korea, but in America it’s just YouTube. It’s normal for a Top 40 hit to mash up country-style pedal steel guitar with bubble-gum-pop vocals, hip-hop rapping, EDM bass, and black metal blast beats. “Authenticity”—the aesthetic ideal of subculturalism—is impossible because there are no standards to be authentic to.

In atomized culture, intensity—shock, novelty, extremes—substitutes for structure. There are no systematic principles for comparing value, so immediate emotional appeal trumps formal qualities. The avant garde has finally expired as an irrelevant archaism. Duchamp couldn’t out-irreverence or out-peculiar Psy.

Atomized society

In atomization, the subcultural mode’s local communities cannot hold together, because they no longer deliver adequate meaning. The subcultural solution to the problems of self and society—intermediate-scale subsocieties that buffer individuals from national institutions—failed.

Instead, society moves onto global interactive media. Internet social networks support larger, geographically dispersed virtual communities. You no longer need to be in the happening place to get access to a genre or scene. You may not know the gender, race, or nationality of some of your closest friends. It is wonderful to find people who share your nearly-unique interests—but can online relationships replace in-person ones? Can electronic communities provide the same benefits as local ones?

The vestiges of systematic social organization are crumbling. As culture and society atomize, it becomes impossible to maintain a coherent ideology. Religions decohere into vague “spirituality,” and political isms give way to bizarre, transient, reality-impaired online movements. Decontextualized, contradictory, intensely-proclaimed religious and political “beliefs” displace legacy systems of meaning. These are not beliefs in an ordinary sense, but advertisements of personal qualities and tribal identification. The atomized mode generates paranoia, because without the systematic mode’s “therefores,” its structure of justification, there are no memetic defenses against bad ideas.

Atomized politics abandons the outdated convention that political arguments should make sense. Occupy, the Tea Party, ISIS, the “tumblr SJW” and “alt-right” social media movements, and the 2016 American Presidential campaign ignored “therefore” in favor of claims that were false and absurd, but not duplicitous, because they were not intended to be believed—just reacted to for their intense emotional impact.

Legacy systematic institutions—especially states—find themselves increasingly unable to cope with the rate of change, or to adapt to an environment of pervasive incoherence. This leaves cracking systems of government facing atomized populations, mutually uncomprehending because of their different modes of processing meaning, producing increasingly intense paranoia on both sides. States are starting to fail, as parts of the world become ungovernable. Others are abandoning democracy for authoritarianism, in desperate attempts to hold social structures together.

Atomized self

Woman looking through a kaleidoscope
Giant kaleidoscope image courtesy Bill Whittaker

We build selves by internalizing meanings from our culture and from social relationships. As culture and society atomize, we are bombarded with a kaleidoscopic chaos of brightly-colored atoms of meaning, and it becomes impossible to construct or maintain a coherent self.

The unity of self that was a reality in the choiceless mode, and a promised (but impossible) ideal in the systematic and countercultural modes, is a forgotten fairy tale. The subcultural mode reluctantly accepted personal fragmentation, but sought, anxiously, to manage it. The atomized mode is comfortable with a self that is a rushing jumbled stream, like the society and culture it internalizes.

A “stage 4” self is a system of principles and projects that structure all the details of one’s internal world, and that resolve priority conflicts among values, tasks, and relationships. This is impossible in the atomized mode.

The always-on internet delivers massively more interruptions, entertainments, relationships, and chores than humans evolved for. Even a relational, “stage 3” self is atomized into a turbulent stream of interaction, because relationships are electronically mediated.

“Authenticity” of self, like authenticity of culture, becomes meaningless when there is no “thine own” to be true to. When it’s obviously impossible to form a systematic self, the task is to surf your own incoherence. Increasingly, this is a practical problem, not an existential threat. We are gradually building skill at it—and this points toward the fluid mode, which accepts incoherence, but can also discover and build patterns within it.

Pathologies of atomization: the new problems of meaningness

In the countercultural mode, as mainstream meanings imploded, finding new foundations for meaning seemed the most urgent problem of meaning. We’ve long since abandoned that quest. The problems we face now are quite different. I will devote a full page to them later, and have mentioned some above.

Overall, the problem is that without structures and boundaries, shards of meaning do not relate to each other, so it’s impossible to compare them. There is no standard of value, so everything seems equally trivial—or equally earth-shaking, or equally threatening. Our lives are so full of so many tiny tasty things, and so many crises and outrages, that it may all fail to add up to much.

The loss of coherence, of “therefore,” gives a misimpression of nihilism, of meaninglessness. In the atomized mode, though, there’s overwhelming quantities of meaning. We suffer from FOMO,2 browser tab explosions, and Facebook trance. Projects, creativity, and fundamental values suffer when they are challenged by cacophonous internet alerts a million times a day.

Meanings no longer fit together to point anywhere. This resembles the choiceless (“traditional”) mode, which also feels no need for grand unified schemes that make everything make sense. In both modes, incoherence—the lack of large-scale structures of meaning—does not particularly seem a problem. We can navigate locally anyway.

The difference is that we now need to manage hugely more complexity, diversity, volume, and urgency of meanings. Individuals can get by in the atomized world without coherent understanding. Societies cannot.

Civilization still needs large systematic institutions—states, corporations, markets, universities—to survive. The atomized mode corrodes the social systems we depend on. Some are nearing collapse. I do not know whether people who grew up in that mode, and disdain systematicity, can keep the machinery of civilization running.

After the atomized mode

The atomized mode is actually impossible. No one is entirely incapable of understanding “therefore,” of coordinating meanings, or ranking values. As I explained at the beginning of this history of meaningness, all the modes are merely “ideal types”: simplified extremes that cannot exist in the real world.

In reality, we have always been in the fluid mode, because complete choicelessness is impossible; totally consistent systems are impossible; and absolute atomization is impossible. Eternalism and nihilism are impossible; we always know better. The fluid mode recognizes that structures of meaning are valuable but always nebulous; systems are powerful but always incomplete.

We have always been in the fluid mode, but now at last we are in a position to recognize it. Now, at last, we have the cultural, social, and psychological resources we need to get good at it. Atomization supplies the critical realization that perfect coherence is neither necessary nor even desirable. Fluidity builds on that, to re-form systems as relative tools rather than eternal absolutes.

  1. 1.In late 2016, as I’m publishing this page, Gangnam Style might seem a quaintly old-fashioned choice for an example of atomized culture. Does anyone even remember it? I wrote the first draft of this page in early 2013, when Gangnam Style was everywhere. In 2016, it is temping to replace it with an up-to-date example. However, that would equally be ancient history in 2019. I hope people will still be reading Meaningness then. Short of rewriting the page every few weeks, it’s inevitable that any example of contemporary culture will be obsolete by the time you read it.
  2. 2.Fear Of Missing Out.