The countercultural mode of the 1960s-80s marked the final attempts to rescue the glory of systems from the maw of nihilistic collapse. It failed, and we live in its wreckage.
It would be polite to say “enduring influence” but I’d rather call it “wreckage.” As civilization burned, we built two vast, fantastical, ornate galleons as escape ships. But they were not the slightest bit sea-worthy; and they collided and broke up in the harbor. The crash left a floating mass of broken spars and tangled lines, choking access to the exit.
Millions of people are still trying to live on that flotsam, so you call across: “It’s a pile of water-logged junk; the rest will sink soon; why don’t you come join us in our fleet of nimble new watercraft?” They jeer that your pathetic little boats are made of plastic, and you say “it’s not plastic, it’s a kevlar composite kayak,” and so on.
The first half of the twentieth century was awful. Not just materially; Western systems of meaning—social, cultural, and psychological—were falling apart. The glorious accomplishments of the systematic era could not hold civilization together, and seemed likely to be lost entirely in a global conflagration.
Many people even came to think those systems were the cause of all the catastrophes. We who live in the aftermath—we who have never experienced an intact system—we cannot fully appreciate how awful that loss of meaning felt.
This page analyzes the first phase of meaning’s disintegration, roughly 1914–1964. It should help explain the new positive alternatives offered by the countercultures and subcultures, which came next, and also why those failed.
All the events I recount will be familiar, but the way I relate them to my central themes of eternalism and nihilism, and to problems of meaning in the domains of society, culture, and self, may seem novel.
We still have no adequate response to these issues. Any future approach—such as fluidity—must grapple with problems that first became obvious in the early twentieth century.
Western culture, society, and selves all fell apart forty years ago. Or so say many theorists; and I agree. To understand how we relate to meaning now, and how we could better relate in the future, we need to understand that recent past.
A systematic culture answers “why” questions with “becauses.” The answers are reasonably consistent and coherent. A series of “why” questions eventually reaches an ultimate, eternal Truth. This Truth is the foundation of the system, which supposedly answers all questions for everyone, everywhere, eternally.
Religious systems, government systems, economic systems, aesthetic systems, philosophical systems, scientific systems, family systems: until a few decades ago, these provided iron frameworks for meaning. Meanings were held safely in place, certified by reliable structures.
This was an extraordinary accomplishment. Systems are not normal or natural. Almost no one has had them in the hundreds of thousands of years humans have been around. Nearly everyone has had to make do without becauses. Human progress over the past few centuries can be attributed almost entirely to systems.
Then, “because” stopped working. We are back in a becauseless world—like and unlike that of our pre-systematic ancestors.
We have not yet figured out how to live well without becauses. Suggestions about how to do that are the goal of Meaningness and Time. First, though, I will explain how “because” worked, how it stopped working, and where that leaves us.
The choiceless mode of relating to meaningness has no “becauses.” In the systematic mode, when you ask “why,” a system answers “because…”. The “becauses” hang together in ways that make everything make sense. In the choiceless, or pre-systematic mode, that’s not necessary—or even conceivable.
In the choiceless mode, you know of only one way of understanding meaningness. You are unaware of any alternatives. In fact, you are also unaware of your own understanding; of the possibility of alternatives; and of your lack of awareness.
In a choiceless culture, no one asks “why?” about meanings, and so there is no “because” needed to answer. Asking doesn’t occur to you. Meaning is a given: inherent in people and things. Water rats are tasty; there’s no point asking why. You marry your mother’s brother’s daughter; to marry your father’s brother’s daughter would be an abomination; you do not think to ask why.
In a choiceless society, you are defined by your social position. You are the son of so-and-so, and belong to the eagle clan—as your father, the clan chief, did. When he died, your elder brother wore the eagle clan hat at the wake. If your brother dies before you, you will wear the clan hat. Like all eagles, you are an enemy of the horse clan and allied to the bear clan. You knew from the age of five that you would marry your mother’s brother’s daughter. This is your self; this is who you are.
In a choiceless culture, art follows forms handed down through legitimate peripheral participation plus some oral explanation. The forms are unquestioned; they are simply as they are. Making art (in the broad sense—music, stories, clothing) is a communal activity. There is no sense of authorship, or originality as a value.
All of this is just how it is; there is no “because” available.
The politics of meaning are swirling into a new configuration. Since the 1960s, “values issues” have defined stable left and right political coalitions. Most people dutifully lined up with one side or the other, and most political questions were forced to align with a fixed left vs. right opposition.
More than a quarter century ago, in “Perfection Salad,” I wrote: “It now seems ludicrous that science should have much to say about cooking… cooking is slowly recovering from ‘domestic science’.” In the 2014 epilogue, I asked: “Has food recovered from domestic science?”
“Domestic science” was rebranded as “nutrition science,” with all the same pathologies. That has yielded zero reliable knowledge.
Despite complete ignorance, nutrition “science” issued and enforced confident recommendations that may have been responsible for millions of premature deaths, plus great loss of health and quality of life.
Meanwhile, industry has developed considerable genuine science of food—oriented to optimizing commercial ends, rather than health and tastiness.
Partial public awareness of these problems has produced a proliferation of pseudoscientific, quasi-religious food subcultures.
Passionate belief in mythical meanings of food probably have a evolutionary origin.
Recently, some pundits have started to suspect that—as I suggested in 1988—no one knows what makes food healthy. Perhaps now the public can begin to resist all claims to authoritative food-knowledge.