Meaningness and Time: past, present, future

Western culture, society, and selves have disintegrated.

The bottom has fallen out of the bucket.

This is common knowledge. It is just a fact—for worse and for better. It happened. Spilt milk. No use wringing hands.

Instead, ask: now what?

The problems of meaningness we face now are dramatically different from those of a half-century ago. We also sense new opportunities, and have new resources.

To relate better with meaningness in the future, it helps to understand how meaningness works now. To understand that, it helps to understand how it worked differently in the past.

So, Meaningness and Time begins with a history. It describes a chronological series of modes of relating with meaningness. I concentrate on the history of the past few decades—the period that some theorists call “postmodern.”

Modernity can be seen as a few centuries of trying to make eternalism into a systematic organizing principle for culture, society, and self. This began to seem dubious a century ago, and the twentieth century was haunted by the specter of nihilism. That was the great twentieth century problem of meaningness.

Late in the century, many people concluded that systematic eternalism had finally collapsed. Yet the nihilist apocalypse failed to arrive—at least not in the form feared. (Too much meaning is now a huge problem; absence of all meaning is not.) So then what, if neither eternalism nor nihilism?

The past half century has brought a succession of approaches to answering that, which I call the countercultural, subcultural, and atomized modes. Each has responded to a crisis of meaning created by the previous mode, and each has produced new serious problems.

That brings us to the present—the atomized mode of tiny jagged shards of meaning-stuff: globalized, commodified, decontextualized; a kaleidoscopic, hypnotizing, senseless spectacle. (Twitter, in other words.)

We cannot go back; each former mode was superseded because it did conclusively fail to provide what we needed from meaning. How can we go forward?

I sense, tentatively, a new mode emerging, which I’ll call fluidity. Perhaps, if I am right that there even is such a thing, it will manifest dire new problems of its own.

I’m hopeful, though, that it’s workable in ways that other recent modes were not. It approximates the complete stance, just as modernity approximated eternalism and postmodernity approximates nihilism. If the complete stance is accurate and functional, then the fluid mode should be too.