How meaning fell apart

Girl exploring modern ruins at Gunkanjima Island
Image courtesy Jordy Meow

My suggestions for how meaningness may evolve in the near future, and how best to relate to it, are based on an understanding of changes in recent history. I propose a series of modes of relating to meaningness that have developed over the past few decades. Each mode solves particular problems of meaningness caused by the previous mode; but introduces new problems of its own.

This page introduces the modes; chapters within this history explain the modes and their implications in detail.

A very brief history of meaningness

The choiceless mode is unaware that alternative meanings are possible. This is the mode of closed cultures; of societies isolated from other peoples. It has not existed in the West for several centuries, and is increasingly rare world-wide.

The problem: When cultures come into contact, they experience conflicts over meanings. Other peoples do things differently; their beliefs seem obviously wrong to us. But they think our beliefs and practices are wrong. How do we know ours are right?

The solution: The systematic mode tries to solve this problem by creating unarguable foundations, to restore certainty. This mode is closely allied with eternalism, although not all eternalism is systematic. The systematic mode is universalist; it says that meanings are the same for everyone, everywhere, eternally.

The new problem: During the twentieth century, it became apparent that attempts to build unshakable foundations had failed, and suspicion grew that it was actually impossible. That raised the threat of nihilism: perhaps everything is actually meaningless?

By the 1960s, mainstream systematic society and culture had become obviously dysfunctional. They failed to provide adequate meaningfulness, and there was general revulsion at the mainstream’s nihilistic moral breakdown.

The new solution: The countercultural mode developed in response. It came in two flavors, the monist counterculture (the hippie movement) and the dualist counterculture (the Moral Majority). These movements proposed universalist systems of meaning that were alternatives to the mainstream. Although rhetorically opposed, the two countercultures were structurally similar, shared historical roots, and had more in common than is usually recognized.

The next problem: The universalism of the countercultures was a fatal flaw. Their new visions were both unable to appeal to a majority. They were unable to encompass the diversity of views on meaningness now found within societies (and across the world). Because they were mass movements, they could not provide community.

The next solution: The subcultural mode abandoned universalism, and with it the attempt to find ultimate foundations for meaning. Instead, subcultures provided numerous “neotribal” systems of meaning that were meant to appeal only to small communities of like-minded people. Some subcultures explicitly extolled nihilism.

The problem with that: Subcultures proved unable to provide either the breadth or depth of meaning people need. Also, lacking strong organizing principles, they repeatedly fissioned in response to differences in view. This is most obvious in the case of subcultures centered on musical genres. The Wikipedia article on heavy metal subgenres is worth a look. Heavy metal is a subgenre of rock, the primary countercultural genre, and spawned a subculture. Death metal is a subsubgenre. Melodic death and technical death are subsubsubgenres.

Around the end of the millennium, subcultures reached the limit of fragmentation, and the mode became unworkable. You can try to live the melodic death lifestyle, but it’s not going to answer most of your questions about Life, The Universe, And Everything. The attempt to provide coherent meanings without foundations had failed. Meaning disintegrated altogether.

What came next: The atomized mode takes incoherence for granted. It does not seem a problem, in this mode; we don’t need systems. Meanings do not hang together. They are delivered 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. Or—to use the thing itself as a metaphor for itself—like Twitter.

The problems we have now: Throughout the twentieth century, from the beginning of the breakdown of the mainstream systems until the breakdown of subcultures, the underlying worry was “not enough meaning.” The atomized mode delivers, for the first time, way too much meaning. It is overwhelming, like trying to drink from a firehose.

Because the shards of meaning do not relate with each other, it’s impossible to compare them. There is no standard of value, so everything seems equally trivial. The collapse of subcultural community has atomized society, and we find it impossible to construct satisfactory selves from the jagged fragments of meaning we’re bombarded with.

Now what: A new fluid mode may address our current problems of meaningness. My understanding of fluidity is tentative; it’s based partly on observation of current trends, and partly on the intrinsic logic of meaningness.

The fluid mode approximates the complete stance, which incorporates the accurate insights of eternalism and nihilism: recognizing that meaningness is always both patterned and nebulous. Likewise, the fluid mode acknowledges structures of meaning without attempting rigid foundations. Its values are collaboration, creativity, improvisation, intimacy, transience, aesthetics, and spiritual depth through community ritual.

The fluid mode goes meta to the process that generated the previous modes. It understands how each solved serious problems of meaningness. It’s therefore able to use each of those solutions when similar problems arise.

Periods, people, cultures, and categories

The various modes appeared at different times; but none of them entirely displaced previous ones. Each arose among some leading-edge group, spread as its solutions became widely understood, and diminished gradually as its own problems became obvious and the next mode mostly replaced it.

Anyone living in the West now can relate to meaningness in any of the modes, and sometimes does. However, which mode seems most natural, and which mode one uses most often, varies from person to person.

It seems that the way one relates to meaningness is learned when one is roughly 15–25 years old; and for most people it is difficult to change after that. The mode that feels native is likely the one prevalent in your peer group at that age. Newer modes seem unattractive and unnatural. Their problems are more obvious than the opportunities they offer. For example, many in the Baby Boom generation remain loyal to their counterculture, even though they have participated in subcultures, and experience atomization when they use the internet.

People have different preferences in relating to change. Some would rather be at the hip leading edge, and are likely to adopt the modes typical of younger generations; some prefer the safety of the trailing edge.

Nations and cultures, too, vary in the speed at which they adopt new modes of meaningness. The Islamic world, for instance, has only partly transitioned from the choiceless to the systematic mode, and is mostly unable to cope yet with the following ones. Some poor countries are being forced by the internet from the choiceless world directly into the atomized one; that’s extremely difficult.

Since none of the modes is fully functional, none constitutes straightforward progress. I’m sympathetic to the conservative impulse to resist these changes and stick with a mode that seems to mostly work. Later in this section, I’ll write about the risks and costs of too-fast change. However, I believe the only way out is through. And, I hope that the fluid mode will be able to incorporate the valuable aspects of all the others.

You may be skeptical of my “modes” as categories; you may find them simplistic, and counterexamples may come to mind. If so, you are quite right. They are meant as “ideal types”: heuristic conceptual categories that illuminate some trends, while inevitably distorting others. They are not meant as ontological; they have no existence in the real world.

In fact, after finishing this history, I will demolish it. The whole thing is a lie. There are no modes; we are always “in the fluid mode” because meaningness has always been both patterned and nebulous. No culture or society was ever actually systematic, for the same reason no one can actually be an eternalist: nebulosity is always obvious. No culture or society can actually be atomized, for the same reason no one can actually be a nihilist: patterns are always obvious.

The analysis of modes is useful for the same reason as the analysis of confused stances. Though we are, in some sense, always in the complete stance, and always in the fluid mode, we try to imagine otherwise. That can have catastrophic consequences.

Sources and similar analyses

Most of this history may be familiar; I may have nothing original to say. I’ve drawn on at least five sources:

My explanations of the choiceless (“traditional”) and systematic (“modern”) modes, the threat of nihilism, the rise of the monist counterculture, and the end of modernity are all standard intellectual history. “Postmodernity”—a historical concept that is now widely accepted—corresponds to the subcultural and atomized modes.

I began thinking about the history of meaningness when trying to understand why Buddhism appeals much more to Western Baby Boomers than to younger people. The answers I wrote in 2009 and in 2011 were early versions of the history I’m presenting here.

I discovered that there is as much of a generation gap between Buddhists of Generation X and Generation Y as between the Boomers and Gen X. That lead me to read about generational differences, which helped me understand that “postmodernity” includes two quite different modes (subcultural and atomized), which are native for Generations X and Y respectively.

I seemed to have as much in common with Gen Y as with Gen X. Affinity with Gen Y made me realize that I could understand cultural, social, and psychological change through my own experience and memories. I’ve lived through most of the history I describe. Each successive mode has radically changed the way I’ve lived, and the way I experience my self. I grew up in a museum of mainstream systematic culture; tried to be a hippie in my early twenties (though it was too late); enthusiastically participated in numerous subcultures through the ’80s and ’90s; experienced the dissolution of subculturalism, found myself atomized by the internet; and am now groping for fluidity.

Reflecting on the changes in my experience of meaningness led to the problem/solution framework I present here. Its details may be original. However, it’s structurally similar to theories of adult psychological development such as that of Robert Kegan, in The Evolving Self, which influenced me heavily in my twenties. Kegan’s framework concerns “meaning-making,” and suggests that each developmental stage solves problems created by the previous one.

Spiral Dynamics extrapolates such theories from psychological to cultural development. Roughly, its beige, purple, and red memes correspond to the choiceless mode; blue and orange to the systematic mode; green to the monist counterculture; and yellow to the fluid mode. It doesn’t seem to include anything corresponding to the countercultural/subcultural/atomized distinctions (just as the theory of postmodernity does not).

In Kegan’s framework, and in Spiral Dynamics, each developmental stage goes meta to the last, so that whatever was previously experienced as “subject” becomes “object,” and a new subject, or self, emerges to reflect on it. Also, the stages alternate between excesses of individuation and social embeddedness. I love the elegance of this structure, but it mostly doesn’t fit the changes I’m writing about. Instead, I see each mode as containing the seeds of its own destruction, because its supposed solution becomes the next problem.

The final influence on my story is the Vajrayana Buddhist theory of form, emptiness, and non-duality; or eternalism, nihilism, and Dzogchen (the Tibetan word for “completion”). The Vajrayana understanding of “nihilism” is close to the Western one, and “eternalism” is analogous to Western understandings of foundationalism, which is the philosophical basis for the systematic mode. Vajrayana’s analysis of the failures of both nihilism and eternalism echoes that of current Western philosophy; but it claims also to provide a solution that avoids the problems of both by incorporating the insights of both. That was the starting point for Meaningness, this book. The central claim of the book is that complete stances can resolve the problems of the confused stances. Similarly, I hope that the fluid mode can resolve the problems of postmodernity.

Incorporating this Vajrayana view points toward a possible solution—fluidity—whose details might not be predictable in other frameworks.