A gigantic chart that explains absolutely everything

This chart is an overview of Meaningness and Time: the past, present, and future of culture, society, and our selves. It shows how the modes of meaningness manifest in many aspects of life.

Some people find this sort of systematic presentation helpful; others do not. Skip it if you are one of those who don’t.

It probably won’t fit in your browser window, and you’ll have to scroll horizontally. Sorry about that. (The title of this page mocks its unwieldiness and ambition.)

Mode Choiceless Successful systems Systems in crisis Countercultures Subcultures Atomization Fluidity
Era (all dates approximate and are for leading-edge societies) Over by 1700 1450-1914 1914-1980; native for those born before WWII 1964-1990; native for Baby Boom generation 1975-2001; native for Generation X 2001-?; native for Millennials Hypothetical present or near future
Problem the mode addresses [None] Challenge of alternatives. How do we know our way is right and all others are wrong? Failure of all foundations. Nihilism: meaninglessness, materialism, disenchantment of the world Failure of mainstream culture, society, and self to provide meaning; disgust at hypocrisy, business-as-usual, and moral breakdown Countercultures deny diversity, are revealed as idealistically impractical, fail to find new foundations; mass movement cannot provide community Subculture does not provide adequate breadth or depth of meaning; inexorable commercial appropriation makes “authenticity” a receding mirage Overwhelming ocean of meaning; triviality (distraction from value judgement); perceived tensions between internet and “real life”; collapsing legacy systematic-mode institutions
Attempted solution [None needed] Supposed foundations for certainty: scripture, rationality, science, personal or collective revelation. Rational, universal, coherent Totalitarianism (attempt to force systems to work); existentialism (attempt to create personal meaning out of nothing) Alternatives (monist and dualist). Universalist (supposed to be right for everyone). Explicitly anti-nihilist. Draws heavily on 1800s Romanticism; abandons rationality Subcultures provide diverse bodies of meaning, without attempting foundations. Exclusivity limits group size to provide community. Abandons universality Global consumer culture provides conveniently-packaged morsels of meaning to cover all eventualities. Abandons coherence Watercraft on the sea of meanings. Meta-systematic, complete stance: reinstates rationality, universality, coherence, but recognizes their nebulosity
Culture Incoherent traditions, accepted without question Attempts to formalize/ rationalize/ systematize culture. Classicism followed by Romanticism. Development of avant-garde; beginning of the “culture war” Development of new cultures as self-conscious, positive mass alternative. Collapse of high culture/pop culture distinction Repeated fissioning of subcultures. Genre obsession. Hipsterism. Quest for “authenticity.” Postmodernism. Universal soup of tiny culture-bits. Kaleidoscopic, hypnotic, senseless reconfiguration. Groundless creative production; awareness of the intertwining of nebulosity and pattern; synergistic remix. Collaborative, improvised, intimate
Society Unquestioned, simple social structure Complex, rationalized social structure; bureaucracy Social structures increasingly diverse and problematic; competing political theories; world wars and clash of civilizations Brotherhood of all counterculture participants Subcultural tribalism: communities based on narrow but innovative shared values/interests. Rituals replace belief systems. Global society moves into interactive media; virtual communities; social networks enable larger, geographically dispersed communities Transitory organizations spontaneously assemble within a durable social infrastructure matrix. Ongoing meta-systematic re-negotiation of individual/subsociety/superstructure interfaces
Self Person fixed by unquestioned social role; no awareness of inside/outside distinction Self as unitary, rational individual, with an “inner life,” and an explicitly-defined relationship with society Age of anxiety: growing awareness of internal incoherence. Self defined by membership in one counterculture (and rejection of the other counterculture) Identity derives from subcultural allegiance. Integration of personality a receding ideal. Atomization of self due to always-on internet: massively more interruptions, entertainments, relationships, tasks Self explicitly accepted as fluid, nebulous assembly, inherently in dynamic interaction, with transient characteristics but no essential nature
Music Traditional forms; community production; no sense of authorship Self-conscious art music (“classical” in the broad sense). Cult of the composer Crisis in classical music; nihilistic atonality. Serialism. Jazz. Everyone in Boomer generation listens to all countercultural music, regardless of genre. In dualist counterculture, attempts at Christian alternative Punk as first mass subculture. Not intended as a universal alternative; explicitly nihilistic. Repeated fragmentation of genres into sub-sub-genres. Ludicrousness of genre leads to mash-ups. Run-DMC/Aerosmith “Walk this way” video collaboration as early explicit example. Genre as musical element, like melody and rhythm, to use and play with. Democratization of music production and distribution as computer tools (DAWs, Soundcloud) improve.
Sex and gender Unquestioned sex roles Sex roles reinforced by systematic ideologies First wave feminism Second-wave feminism in the monist counterculture. Moral Majority & “family values” in dualist counterculture Fragmentation of feminism: pro- vs. anti-sex, egalitarian vs. essentialist. LGBTQ, Quiverfull, men's movements, orthosexuality, Bears, PUA, NoFap, Rules Girls, furverts, … Intersectionalism. Jagged, incoherent, decontextualized political and ethical claims about sex and gender that have escaped from subcultures Whole-hearted ironism; recognition that there is no fair system and conflict is inevitable; passion & compassion together
Buddhism Miscellaneous practical superstitions; karma, merit, and auspiciousness; monastic economics. Entirely unknown to Consensus Buddhists. Scriptural Buddhist theorizing Buddhist modernism: importation of new, rationalizing foundations from West, as a response to cultural breakdown in Asia Consensus Buddhism: hybrid of Asian Buddhist modernism with American monist counterculture Diverse Western Buddhist subcultures, mainly developed by charismatic Asian modernizers. No serious attempt at universality. Spurious rhetoric of traditionalism (usually actually Asian nationalism). McMahan: “Global folk Buddhism.” Dharma burgers. Vapid @DalaiLama tweets. Fake Buddha quotes. McMindfulness. Eckhart Tolle. SBNR. Buddhism as amorphous assemblage of means for transformation of culture, society, and self by uniting spaciousness and passion to unclog energy and empower nobility
Vampires Considered a realistic physical danger Symbolize incoherence as challenge to the system (Church, Nation, and/or rationality) [Bram Stoker’s Dracula] Monstrous Other as Romantic anti-hero [Ann Rice; Dark Shadows] Monstrous Self as Romantic anti-hero [Laurel K. Hamilton's Anita Blake books] Monstrosity (incoherence) of the self as a practical hassle that can be managed [Kim Harrison] Trivialization of no-longer-threatening incoherence [Twilight as first attempt]. But fails until we have fully digested shadow Nobility of vampires as creative, benevolent appropriation of personal incoherence
Food Mythological food taboos; pre-systematic practices of hunting, gathering, growing, harvesting, cooking, sharing, and eating it Mainstream state/academic/industrial food ideologies: Domestic Science, Home Economics, Nutrition On-going; the mainstream is still strong in this domain, oddly enough Hippie health-food culture; macrobiotics; vegetarianism Subcultural food ideologies: proliferation of variants of vegetarianism (vegan, fruitarian, etc); Slow Food; locavorism; raw foodism; paleo; etc. Commercial diet fads; magic ingredient of the week; proliferation of decontextualized health/nutrion claims in food marketing; soylents ??? [Current paucity of knowledge makes future inconceivable]


This page is in the section How meaning fell apart,
      which is in Meaningness and Time: past, present, future.

The next page in this section is In praise of choicelessness.

This page’s topics are History of ideas and Systems.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.