Wolf Tivy and Mary Harrington discuss her experience learning to recover meaning within postmodernism, and the larger philosophical growing pains we are facing as a society.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Wolf Tivy: Hello and welcome to the Palladium podcast. I’m your host Wolf Tivy. Today we’re joined by Mary Harrington from the UK who wrote an article for us a couple weeks back about postmodernism and post structuralism and how her experience with that worked out, going through college getting the getting sort of an early version of the sort of postmodern experience that a lot of people are experiencing these days in college. And being very struck by having it having have a large impact on her life and then kind of gradually working her way out of that into what she regards to be a more healthy perspective. And so I wanted to bring her on and expand on these topics kind of go through her story and talk about how as a society and as individuals, we should be dealing with a lot of these insights that have been driving the kind of postmodern philosophical movement. So Mary, welcome to the show.
Mary Harrington: Hi. Hi. Thank you for having me on.
WT: So let’s, let’s start with reiterating your story. I mean, this was all in the article, but we can kind of go over it for those who are just listening now.
MH: Sure. Well, so I went up to university in 1998. So a little while ago now. I studied English literature at Oxford University. Prior to attending university, I’d say I had a fairly classical education. I mean, it was slightly unusual because I went to a Steiner Waldorf school, but it was broadly classical in the sense of teaching about the sort of continuity. And if you like, a sort of narrativity of Western Civilization, you know, we learned about Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome and, and kind of in sequence, and there was a clear implication in the sequencing of what we learned, that there was a narrative to it, that there was—you could sort of infer from it that there was a history of something that was going somewhere. It wasn’t completely clear where that final destination might be. But there was a sense of directionality and of narrative.
So, imagine my shock when I got to university and encountered post-structuralism in my first year as an English literature undergraduate and discovered that from within this worldview, that that entire sense of teleology had been, as it were, dismantled. I mean, there are hints of it in some of the literary criticism that precedes Derrida and Saussure, and so on. There are hints that the whole edifice is coming apart already in T.S. Eliot. I mean, you only have to look at The Waste Land to see the heap of broken images, it’s all there and about to implode, but even in The Waste Land, there’s this sense of a massive kind of elusive tapestry that Eliot still feels confident in referencing, even though he’s addressing it as though it’s slightly beyond his grasp all of the time.
And there’s always the sense that the canon is just too big to get your head ‘round anymore. But there’s still the sense that it’s there, and that it is a canon, and that it has some kind of substance to it, and some kind of coherence, even if it feels as though it’s coming apart in his hands. And then of course, you look at the Four Quartets, and you know, there’s a sense of something he’s sort of progressing towards the possibility of there still being something transcendent, but then when it gets to the post-structuralist in the 1960s, and there on, it just all goes completely falls apart. Because this critique of narrative and teleology, which basically says that, you know, even positing some kind of a narrative is essentially just a self-serving act of power. And I mean, I’m conscious, of course, that it’s been a while since I read this stuff, there’s been more work done since. And actually, when you look at the post-structuralists themselves, a lot of them are considerably more nuanced than this. But as an undergraduate, this was my takeaway.
WT: Can we expand on kind of what were these insights that they were grappling with, the post-structuralists and so on? How did they come to this kind of position? And what are the what are the takeaways there that we actually have to take seriously? I think there is something to that, right, this this very perspectival approach to grand narratives.
MH: Absolutely. I mean, I think what really kind of hit me like a freight train when I got to university was—I mean, the sort of structuralism and post-structuralist argument, very crudely summarized, is that because there’s a separation between the sign, i.e. word and what it signifies, therefore, signs can only really be defined in relation to other signs. So, the structuralists, they were just interested in exploring and investigating and uncovering the world of signs, the discipline of semiotics, they called it, but the post-structuralists kind of problematize that whole approach because they said, “Well, you know, if sign and signified are not the same thing, then signs can only be defined in relation to other signs. And in from that it follows that there’s no there’s nothing really substantial that we can ground meaning in at all,” and therefore you know, what I took away from it, and I’m not I’m not going to anchor this in any one theorist, but what I came away from this study with was a sense that what we were looking at was a world in which there was there was no substantial meaning, and it was all just an act of power.
It was all just human culture operating on and within a realm of the real which was so ungraspable in its pre-signified state, that there’s nothing really to hold on to at all, and it was all just power.
WT: Right. So, when you’re looking around at the world and kind of like grounding your words, like, let’s say the word red right. I see some red in front of me or someone points at some red and says red, and there is a grounding there that is not merely grounding only in other signifiers, right. There is the perceptual experience as well. And so—
MH: As I understand it, at least within some of the sort of contemporary discussions which have emerged out of this sort of post-structuralist theory, there are people who question whether even that’s the case, you know, this is a rabbit hole I really don’t want to go down, but for example, there are people who question the notion that biological sex exists in any meaningful, objective sense, or whether we didn’t just construct it as a culture. And I mean, I’m going to leave that question to one side, but I think there are–the question of to what extent observable reality is itself as a concept, even a cultural construct is now—isn’t the table.
WT: Yeah, I think I think the idea of observable reality absolutely is a cultural construct. However, it’s also a hypothesis, right? Speaking epistemically, it’s a hypothesis about how the world works, or about, like, at least how the structure of our perceptions works, and it seems to hold up fairly well. And I think, I’ll definitely say that yes, there’s constructed elements to all of this, including, you know, our perception of color and so on. However, there is also this reality that we do seem to be able to ground it in. Of course, the reality that we’re grounding it in is not this uninterpreted sense data. It’s very much like—before it even reaches your brain. it’s going through many layers of conceptualization—you’re learning from others, or you’re making up sort of yourself, and so I think that’s there’s definitely something to that that there’s quite a bit of learned conceptualization in our perception of reality that isn’t just reality presenting itself to us and that that those concepts, the landscape of concepts available to us and that we receive from society are very much subject to power relations and construction by power centers, and to posit one of these concepts is an action on the social fabric and is therefore an act of power.
So, I think that’s the takeaway that I take from this stuff of how, where, where I take it seriously, right. There is the sense in which Yes, reality is a bit more slippery than we had imagined conceptually, and there is this definite social and power relations aspect to our perceptions and our thoughts and how we conceptualize the world.
MH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, from where I’m sitting now talking to you, you know, as a reasonably functioning adult in middle age now, I 100% agree with everything you’ve just said. From where I was 20 odd years ago, having met this stuff for the first time, it all seemed—the impact on reality just seemed a whole lot more terminal than that; it felt as though it was impossible to say anything without what I said being over-determined in some intrusive way by pre-existing power relations. And also that, you know, in some sense, just by making interventions myself, I was in some way doing violence on other people’s personal realities. And I freely admit, I was kind of loopy at that point anyway, for unrelated reasons. So I probably took it a lot more seriously than, you know, some of the more grounded types might have done.
But I think the reason I wrote the blog post, which you guys picked up and asked me to expand into a slightly more theorized article. The reason I wrote that was because I’ve, since sort of coming to terms with all of this stuff and finding an accommodation which works a bit better than my feelings at that time, I’ve observed what gets called the campus wars taking place in contemporary universities, particularly in the English-speaking world. And when I look at it, it just looks to me like a mass version of what I was going through. I mean, I can’t know what’s going on inside other people’s minds and and see inside the cultural terrain, which is in a lot of ways unfamiliar to me now, but I suppose I started thinking about it and trying to write it out because I was thinking, you know, actually what I was going through at the time was horrible.
It was a really, really bad place to be. It was a really dark place to be in and a really destructive place to be, and it took me a long time to find my way out of it. And if that’s actually where most of our young people are at the moment, then that’s a serious problem. And that’s not something we should be addressing either by mocking it, or by dismissing it as something which is just going to go away again, because there’s a kind of—there’s some kind of a mass trauma going on there. People are really suffering, people are really distressed. And that’s something we need to take seriously. You know, whether you’re on the right or the left, or somewhere else altogether. But I think it needs to be taken seriously and approached with compassion, and, you know, in an effort to understand what it’s like emotionally and not just intellectually,
WT: And so, in terms of what that phenomenon feels like, I guess, you were basically thrown into a new ontology, like a totally different ontology of how your kind of moral narrative and your narrative of yourself being in society, like how that’s constructed. You had this kind of fairly objective narrativized teleological viewpoint that you’ve picked up through the classics, and then you’re thrown into this totally different perspectival, deconstructing post-structuralist worldview. And you hadn’t worked out how to ground everything that you rely on in that new ontology, and you hadn’t worked out how to like exist within that way of being. And I think that’s sort of maybe an artifact of its newness, like we’re thrown into this new set of insights, this new paradigm really, it’s a new like, epistemological paradigm. And it is, in fact, like it is sort of an advance in some important way. On the previous paradigms, it’s more wise about certain things, about certain ways the world works. However, we have not learned yet or we had not, I guess, at your time, learned to live with this new paradigm. And so, it’s sort of a very traumatic event—being thrown out of your kind of native paradigm into this new paradigm. But I guess over time, you know you as a relatively bright intellectual and just as a human being growing through their life, you kind of learn to re-situate yourself in this new paradigm and learn how to re-ground your meaning and so on.
MH: I think that’s accurate. I mean, the critical change for me, just backing up a bit. I think the thing which disturbed me most profoundly—and again, this is probably this is probably partly about my own story and just where I was, you know, my own biographical details, but what disturbed me most deeply about the sort of post-structuralist message I received from post-structuralism, was this idea that in a sense, there was no meaningful way of encountering the other in any sort of authentic sense. That in a sense, there was only really the operations of my power on you and your power on me. And in a sense, we were we were just engaged in this sort of semiotic contest for whose take, whose reality was going to prevail.
And sometimes that could be more or less hostile, but in a sense, it was always hostile; it was like a sort of, you know, on the level of signification, of constant war, a war of all against all, you know, and not just of individuals against one another, but also of the, you know, pre-existing sort of overdetermined larger structures of meaning that are implicit in design artifacts such architecture and the built environment. Or, you know, even something like a canal sort of hit me as a kind of an intervention in semiotic and by extension in my psychic space. It was an experience like being constantly attacked and constantly invaded by the systems of power, and systems of thought, and systems of meaning, which had accumulated over time and were constantly in motion relative to one another and to me, and I just felt overwhelmed by the sort of enormity of it all.
But particularly of this, this sense of impersonal aggression was how it felt. I mean, it’s a long time ago. It sounds completely insane trying to put it put it into words from the vantage point of sort of relatively functioning adult life now, but that was what it felt like. And I look at these young people who say with complete sincerity, that some university administrator who refuses to validate their identity is literally obliterating them.
On the face of it, that just looks completely nuts. Objectively, you have not just been erased, you’re still here. In no meaningful sense have you been obliterated, but I look at them, and I think they really believe this. And, and I’ve been I was thinking, you know, actually from the point of view of how it felt to be me, coming across this, this sort of radical decentering of the objective, analytical individual, and its replacement with this kind of massive sort of systemic mesh of meanings. And, you know, actually having your perspective invalidated by the other really did feel like a hostile attack and a kind of erasure, so I guess, you know, just kind of fast forward to having set that concept rather, hopefully not too great length. The biggest transformation for me was going back to school in my late 20s for about five years part time, where I trained as a psychotherapist. And I think the big, the kind of harm for me was studying contemporary psychoanalysis where the same decentering of the subject has taken place, as it has, you know, in a whole bunch of other disciplines and strands of intellectual thought. And when people aren’t really so hard on Freud these days anymore at all. But what’s really significant is that there’s kind of the classical analyst who sits there detached and remote and analytical. And is seen as being able to be in a sense objective—the psychoanalysis doesn’t work. It doesn’t think of itself like that at all anymore. And instead, they bought into subject into subjective psychoanalysis, which comes much more from the perspective that the therapeutic encounter is co-created between the analyst and the client and that in that relational space is always present: the analysts’ unconscious as well as the client’s, and to a degree, you just have to live with that. But once you accept the sort of lurking presence of your own unconscious, you in no way presume that you’ve vanquished any of that bullshit because you just, let’s face it, you just haven’t because nobody does.
But along with that, there comes this possibility of a genuine encounter, which will often come at the moment when you least expect it. And that just really; it was an incredibly healing process for me studying this, you do a lot of personal work as well. It just became clear to me that this sense of, you know, in the sense of loss that I experienced, the possibility of ever being able to engage truthfully with another person. You know, I didn’t have to feel bereaved, I didn’t have to be deprived of that because actually, it was still possible to encounter the other. You just had to do it from this decentered space where you accept that you’re there in the mess, and there’s no place to stand outside. And just that very experiential re-exploration of the decentered subject at a much more intimate level, you know, the sort of I-Thou encounter of the consulting room, and the genuine experience of transformation, you know, both as a client in my own therapy, but also as a therapist, you know working with sometimes quite distressed and traumatized clients. It just left me with a takeaway that the decentering of a subject doesn’t follow from that, that we’ve abandoned any possibility of an encounter with another person.
And from that just expands out with the possibility that you know, there was, in this great, interconnected, slightly slippery, indefinable mesh of historic and existing and current and future meanings. There is actually a place for us. We just have to be slightly less arrogant about it.
WT: Yeah, I like I like the way you said it. You’re not there as an outside grounded observer on reality, but you’re there in the mess, and you’re sort of floating in it.
MH: And in a sense, you know, it ought to be obvious, really, because that’s pretty much the insight of a lot of contemporary theoretical physics. I mean, I’m not hugely up on theoretical physics, but it’s my understanding that it’s not considered possible to separate the observer from what’s being observed, even in the hardest of hard sciences.
WT: Yeah, I mean, it’s specifically in quantum mechanics. If you have like an entangled system, or you have sort of a system in superposition and then you try to observe the inside of that superposition, you end up entangled with that system, in a quantum mechanical sense, and so then the observer actually gets kind of—or one interpretation is the observer gets sucked into the entanglement and therefore only sees part of it. Or, another interpretation is that the act of observation itself collapses the superposition.
MH: Which works as a perfect metaphor for what we’re talking about.
WT: Right. This idea of like, you’re no longer kind of standing on solid ground, you’re kind of floating in this intersubjective matrix of power relations and concepts that’s all kind of very hard to ground. It’s like sort of being thrown into the water for the first time, right? That’s kind of how I’m imagining it. And at first, you feel like, this is totally crazy. I’m not standing on ground, you know, you panic. You feel like you’re drowning. And then at some point, I guess you learn to swim.
MH: Well, that’s the hope. But where I see this, this sort of, you know, mass kind of outbreak of psychic distress. In particularly, it seems to be elite colleges. The more expensive and rarefied the college, the more extreme this stuff is. I argued in the essay I wrote for you that what gets taken as post-modernism in that context is not, in fact, post-modernism in the sense you and I have just been discussing, of being a sort of an effort to learn to swim in the current, but it’s a kind of last ditch defensive maneuver by the rational, disengaged subject, who, you know, having discovered he or she can’t have objective meaning is just engaged in this sort of all out war on meaning itself, on the basis that every meaning requires definition. And any definition, you know, by definition, depends on excluding whatever it isn’t, and so if you make inclusivity the end goal of all of your politics, in effect, you’re waging war on meaning, because you cannot have total inclusivity without having no meaning,
WT: Right. And if you do attempt to construct any shared meaning, then that’s sort of inherently an act of power and that’s something you have to either come to terms with, or take this very destructive approach to it.
MH: In much the same way as forming any political movement requires defining an in-group for whom the political movement is acting and aiming to speak. So, if the aim of your political movement is total inclusivity, then it will lose any political agency. I mean, I think something interesting is like that, along those lines, is taking place in the LGBT movement at the moment. There was a kerfuffle fairly recently when Arielle Scarcella, who’s a well-known YouTube lesbian blogger, posted a video where she basically said, “That’s it. This is my coming out video, I’m leaving the left. I’m done. I can’t be part of this anymore.”
Essentially, what she was saying was this movement has become so inclusive that actually it’s just inviting in a whole bunch of people whose political interests are not sufficiently aligned to make any sort of meaningful political program. And again, I don’t want to get bogged down in the specifics of any one identity group. But this is a phenomenon which you could argue plays out in any number of different spheres. You know, the moment you start to worry about the effect of definition as an act of power, and you start feeling like the act of power involved in definition is in a sense suspect, just politically suspect by definition, then you’re just into a whole world of craziness and politics becomes impossible.
WT: Yeah. Well, this this sort of reminds me of something that Nietzsche said in Beyond Good and Evil, you know, late 19th century. I think he saw a bunch of this stuff coming. And he said, there’s an inherent cruelty in the act of thought itself. I mean, Nietzsche obviously phrases everything in a very provocative way to really sort of shock you and kind of traumatize you a little bit with this stuff that he’s trying to teach you, but there’s something there, which is that, to impose a truth, even on your own mind is itself this quasi-violent act if you’re willing to see it that way. It’s blowing up a bunch of your preconceptions, a bunch of comfortable touch points, and so on. And it’s this act of power. You’re marching into part of your mind with an army of truth and imposing a new order. You extend that concept out to sort of trying to convince anyone of anything or trying to organize anyone to do anything or reach any kind of shared meaning structure. And yeah, you get the sense that there is an aggression to it, and I guess what Nietzsche was trying to get at was like, look, you need to come to terms with this.
He’s putting it sort of in the most shocking possible terms to almost desensitize you–not desensitize but force you to deal with it, and to look at that and say, “Hey, look, yes there’s power here, there is even cruelty here. And maybe it’s still possible to construct meaning.” This is sort of the ideal takeaway from that is that you come to terms with those things and you learn to use them responsibly, and you learn to not be traumatized and not regard them as always problematic but problematic in some circumstances and not others.
MH: That’s my sincere hope. Now. I mean, when I look around at what’s coming through politically or what’s viewed as sort of a radical stance to take politically now. That’s, to be honest, not so much what I see. Or rather, you know, what I see is indeed, you know, a series of bids for power, but they’re cloaked—in a sense, they they’re using this sort of war on meaning and the kind of horse of inclusivity as a stalking horse, as a kind of blind for what is in effect the installation of a new bureaucracy, whose aim is to adjudicate the total semiotic free for all of individuals who are so atomized that in fact, you know, notion, no shared structures of meaning are even possible anymore.
I follow that to its logical conclusion, which is not one I hope we ever reach. But it’s a sort of, it’s a kind of nightmare vision of a kind of total state. You know, exercising intrusive control over a society of totally atomized individuals who don’t feel like they have any right to have any individual purchase on one another or any kind of interpersonal or intersubjective relational bonds with one another at all.
Everything is mediated through this kind of total state. And to me, that that’s the kind of logical endpoint of liberalism unmediated by any of the sort of Burkean traditions, any of the intersubjective dimensions of meaning, you know, that, for the most part for human societies, reside in things like tradition. So, I suppose the point I’ve reached, reluctantly, because I really was a radical leftist in my 20s, the point I’ve reached today is a kind of grudging recognition that the traditions that we have—in as much as they still exist—are probably a better idea, are probably worth hanging on to, you know.
I’d call myself a very reluctant conservative, but in as much as I’ve come to appreciate the value and the importance of tradition, you know, in the Burkean sense, as a bulwark against a sort of total disintegration and atomization of the human subject. I suppose that is where I’ve ended.
WT: And that act is almost, I mean, it’s in a way like standing in the shallows of the ocean, like you’ve sort of got some feet on the ground, you’re familiar with the water, you’ve come to be familiar with the water, but now you found something to stand on where you need it, where you haven’t quite learned to swim.
I find actually a lot of hope in some of the conversations I see around this stuff—still very obscure, but I see very intelligent people working on taking the sort of postmodernist, post-structuralist stuff for granted and then trying to produce that re-socialized, shared meaning structure and really produce well-grounded philosophical theory that allows us to recover that stuff without it being just that act of standing in the shallows, without it being like, Oh, well we need this tradition stuff, but rather reground the wisdom of tradition in this intersubjective inherently perspectival world.
MH: That’s why you’re talking about the difference between a living tradition and a dead one.
MH: One which is suffused with—it doesn’t have to be a rational, intellectual grasp of what the tradition is for, but there are plenty of other levels on which you can understand things. But the difference between a living and a dead tradition is exactly that. It’s this sense that, you know, a dead tradition is just people going through the motions and they’re not really sure why. And a living one—people know, even if it’s just at the emotional level, what it’s for.
WT: Yeah, let’s not be too hard on dead traditions, so to speak, because there is a lot of value in—even if you know this thing is not really grounded, you know, kind of that it works.
MH: The other thing to remember, of course, is that if you repeat a dead tradition enough times, if enough people keep turning up to form a dead tradition, it will kind of come back to life again. It might not come back quite the way you expected it to, but it will.
WT: Yeah, it won’t come back the way it was. And if there’s been some intervening change in your philosophical paradigm, yeah, it’s gonna be quite different. And I think that’s what we’re dealing with right here is—we’ve got this, this change in our philosophical paradigm of our whole society. And you can sort of hobble along with a lot of the stuff we had from before the change, but at some point to really work out, a lot of that stuff needs to be re-grounded in the new meaning structure and the new ways we construct meaning structures, which means people need to be figuring those out. Anyway, so I’m very heartened, actually, in seeing people working on that stuff.
MH: I’d be interested to hear any references, any directions you can point me in because like you I’m very interested in people who’ve embraced and found their bearings and are thinking beyond the depth of meaning towards how we go about reorienting ourselves, because meaning never died. It never went away. It just became apparent that actually it’s kind of more alive than we thought.
WT: Yeah, it’s not as objective and out there as we thought; it’s something more in here, and yeah, something we interact with in a much more living way.
MH: So I share your interest in that.
WT: I’ll give you some references then and for the audience, as well, some of the things—now, I’m not deeply engaged in these conversations. I just sort of occasionally talk to someone from one of these crowds. And I’m like, “Okay, good. Someone’s working on this.” And they seem to be making progress. And then I take my insights from whatever I learned from them. So I’m not engaging directly with sort of any academic conversation, but some of the things I’ve seen, meta-modernity is one term that I’ve seen thrown around from a bunch of different crowds that seem to be working on this.
I’ve seen people working on what people are calling the meaning crisis, which is sort of encompassing this whole, this whole, like civilizational event of going through this, this sort of perspectival transformation. And there’s a bunch of people doing good work on the meaning crisis, then there’s something a little bit more obscure that I think, is doing good work, though I don’t really agree with all of it, but it’s got some really great ideas, is generative anthropology.
And that one I’m not that familiar with, but I sort of know some of the basic ideas and the idea is sort of trying to re-ground language and how we think about intersubjective meaning in the sort of primordial acts of authority, rather than trying to ground everything in declarative statements of “x is true” in this objective, outside of the intersubjective sense. You ground things much more in some notion of shared authority and shared society, and I can’t faithfully reproduce the thing, but there’s, there’s something there going on where people are working on this, trying to reground our intersubjective meanings in some notion of primordial authority. Anyway, so that those are a few of the threads that I’ve seen kind of looking promising on this whole transformation.
MH: This generative anthropology sounds very much like to follow up on.
WT: I’ll send you some links if I can find them.
MH: Yeah, I had an art project that I ran for about five years in my 20s, which I call generative object oriented mythology. GOOM, for short, which was basically me trying to theorize how you reinvest meaning, how you reinvest things with meaningfulness, and so it sounds like there are a lot of points of connection between what I was trying to investigate there and what these generative anthropology guys are up to you. So I definitely need to look into that.
WT: I’m hopeful that we’ll basically kind of solve this, right, that we will as a society learn to swim, so to speak. My kind of provisional answer that I rely on is like, yeah, that we live in a society. We kind of inherently operate as small pieces within that society, we operate within the conceptual and informational structures provided by society, and society very much constrains what kind of plans and meaning structures are possible for us. And that’s fine, right? Ground your sort of feeling of identity, not just in yourself and the sovereignty of yourself, but in also your society and the sovereignty of your society, and just come to identify more with, with like, yeah, we are working together on this shared project of society, what do we want to do with it? What’s our perspective, Right? These are active questions that are subject to construction, we construct the answer of what is our perspective, of what do we want to do.
And I sort of don’t see a problem with that. It’s just something that needs to be kind of theorized and worked out of how do you actually do that? And how do you ground that, given the existence of things like power structures and classes within society, and all these things that we deal with? How are all the structures in our society grounded in this notion of a shared “we,” and a shared perspective that is society and that breaks down into this very rich, complex system of sort of subperspectives and subcomponents. And I don’t obviously have the full answer. But I’m kind of gesturing towards the thing that I think this is going to look like when it’s all said and done.
MH: Yeah. I mean, one of one of the things I find myself mulling over—well, I don’t know if we’ll live long enough to discover the answer to this. But I mean, it’s fairly obvious to me that the shape, the structure of our society, will be determined to an extent by the kinds of stories it’s able to tell about itself. Right? I mean, if you’ll accept that as a working hypothesis, I mean, you look at the sort of generative mythologies of different civilizations, whether that’s Romulus and Remus, or it’s the Christian mythos. Or it’s you know, the sort of archetypal story of the founding of the United States. There are these kinds of definitional stories which create a shape or a sort of cultural frame within which a similar issue at a basic level becomes possible.
And one of the things I find myself wondering about is, to what extent the sort of the globalized society, this highly complex, highly globalized society that we currently have will continue to be possible. If we take as given this new paradigm that we’ve been talking about, you know, to what extent is that still the right way to organize things? I don’t know the answer to that. But my hunch is no.
WT: I mean, I don’t necessarily see these things bearing on each other too much. The paradigm that I think we’re sort of throwing ourselves into here is one that will deal with the systems of power that it’s given in a way, and so the question of how globalized is society, well that seems to me like basically a geopolitical and economic question of: does anyone actually manage to unify the economic structure and the political structure of the Earth? Or is it sort of inherently that we’re going to have a multipolar world with many smaller entities? And I guess to your point, to some extent, the current power structure of the world is based on this objective kind of liberalism, you know, an international order, a rules-based international order, right, is a sort of a term that gets thrown around where the idea of rules is this sort of objective thing that’s like, adjudicated from nowhere, but orders all our power relations.
And I think that idea is going out the window with this new paradigm. And I think that particular basis of legitimacy for world power is going to break down, and perhaps this is related actually to the decline of America as a world power. America as a world power was really based in that global narrative of rules-based international order that came out of the Second World War and sort of through the Cold War and after that.
And you know, as we lose confidence in anything like that ourselves, and we sort of realized, well, actually, this is just a big tool of imperialism, and we’ve just kind of imposed this particular unexamined perspective on the world, we are losing the ability to maintain the structures of that thing. And so, I think this philosophical convulsion may be one of the driving factors in the decline that we’ve seen.
MH: Great. That’s kind of that’s kind of what I’m getting at.
WT: But speaking sort of abstracted from the historical moment—what I was saying earlier about, like, I don’t see this necessarily bearing on it immediately is abstracted from the historical moment. I think it’s certainly possible to construct a new narrative for a global hegemony that does sort of respect this new paradigm. I don’t think it’s going to become impossible. I think it’s just possibly going to kill the current one. That would be the way I read it.
MH: Yeah. I think that’s, I agree with that. But I think we’re some way off anybody coming up with how you do global hegemony in a post-modern fashion. Or perhaps they aren’t, I mean, perhaps Xi Jinping, perhaps China is in fact that, perhaps Donald Trump is in fact that. I mean, that’s a that’s a frankly, alarming idea. But it’s—
WT: Yeah, I don’t think Trump has deep sort of theoretical rigor behind what he’s doing. The Chinese—
MH: I don’t think you need to have deep theoretical rigor, in order to swim in the current. I mean, you know, I’m not deeply immersed in American politics, and I always feel it’s a bit rude to comment on the politics of a nation that you’re not actually in at the time, but from where I’m sitting, he looks like he’s kind of making it up as he goes along a bit. As long as it works, if it works, then that’s kind of good enough from the point of view of meanings which are in flux. The problem is when it doesn’t really work.
WT: Okay, I think I see what you’re saying then. With Trump, you have definitely this phenomenon of–this guy does not believe in the rules-based international order. He does not believe in those stories we were telling ourselves about how liberalism worked. And therefore, he’s taking this very pragmatic, I’m just gonna make good deals, kind of approach to the thing and shooting from the hip in a way and making it up as he goes along. And that might be the correct thing to do in in this postmodern environment.
However, there’s this whole other side of the thing, which is that as soon as you have to coordinate elites within some imperial structure, you need some notion of shared meaning, right? Why are we rowing together? What are we rowing together towards? What are we working on together? What is our shared perspective, and that is something that Donald Trump does not have. So that’s what I’m getting at. It’s very difficult to coordinate a system of elites without having some shared meaning structure that they actually believe in.
Trump is simultaneously postmodern and modern. To the extent that he has power relies basically on a bunch of people’s beliefs in the constitutional form as it exists and which is like very much caught up in kind of liberalism and so on. But then at the same time, he’s not operating within that mythological structure. And so that I think produces a lot of the conflict around Trump. He’s unable to organize elites around himself because he doesn’t have this viable shared meaning structure for them, which leads to the general kind of revolt of the rest of the elite against Trump and some general chaos in that administration. And so that’s like, I guess how I would analyze Trump in this lens. I don’t want to dwell too much on these electoral politics issues. I find the philosophical stuff much more interesting, but as an example of the thing that’s how I would call Trump. With respect to China, at Palladium we do try to actually delve into how the Chinese are thinking about things or specifically how the Chinese Communist Party is thinking about itself. And, as far as we can tell, so far, we have not delved enough to be definitive on this, but as far as I can tell, it looks to me like they are still grounding themselves very much in this sort of objective scientific communism idea. And communism is very much not sort of postmodern in this way. Communism is—
MH: No, it’s a variant of liberalism, or at least that’s what John Gray argues. It’s a slightly bizarre variant, but it’s definitely a cousin.
WT: Communism is sort of, I mean, it’s sort of just another name for the other thing that Marx used, scientific socialism. It’s this idea of there being an objective, scientifically verifiable path of development that societies would go through and we’re just kind of marching along this objective path. And the Chinese whenever they change their structure, their sort of path of development, they’re framing it as a new discovery in the objective process of communism, or this is what the process of communism must necessarily look like for China. And that’s still like a very modern way of thinking as opposed to a postmodern way of thinking.
MH: I guess we’d be in danger of falling back into exactly the teleologies that we claim to have been liberated from, if we were to take it that, inevitably, the Chinese Communist Party and China as a continent is going to find itself embracing the paradigm that we’re currently talking about. I don’t think there’s any guarantee of that whatsoever.
WT: No, and they need not make this update. I suspect that they will. It’s not this like objective teleological process necessarily, there, there is a way in which, you know, going back to reality and nature, a new philosophical structure that exploits sort of vulnerabilities in the old philosophical structure will tend to just sweep away that old philosophical structure by default.
In the same way, a new species comes into existence in the ecosystem, and it knows how to exploit the previous organisms. They don’t have evolved defenses towards it. You get this sort of invasive species effect, and I think that that’s how I model what’s happening with postmodernism is that they actually—it actually does have these very true insights to it, or true in the sense that they structure thought in a more useful way that makes our previous assumptions inelegant. And that means that I think that these sort of modern ways of thought will either have to be adapted, or they will be kind of replaced by a more postmodern mode of thinking that is more self-aware of its inherent perspective. And so I think that’s the transformation we’re going through in the West. I don’t think China appears to be going through that, though I would suspect that at some point they’re going to run into this.
MH: I guess time will tell. China doesn’t really need me to try and adjudicate for them on that anyway. But I mean, where I find this stuff interesting and potentially really exciting is that, I think, and I have to do a lot more reading on this before I can argue it in depth, but my hunch is that–what you call what you call this update, let’s just call it that the update. It’s kind of kind of like a new software download. So you know, that enables us to have another look at the project of a politics of virtue. Yes, because the problem that we’ve had for some time now you know—this goes back to long, long before Derrida. This goes back to the 19th century probably. The problem that we’ve had is Alastair MacIntyre writes about this in After Virtue, the sense that we’re no longer confident that there’s anything substantial in which we can ground an idea of the good.
Somehow, that idea that we’ve lost—we’ve lost any kind of an anchor point for ideas of the Good. And that’s a profound loss, which took place some time ago. And most of the sort of the intellectual and emotional convulsions of modernism and really postmodernism all of which is actually the same story has followed from that. But I think this new software download gives us the opportunity to address that.
WT: I think I think it gives us an opportunity to construct a grounding for the Good, or find within ourselves the drive towards the Good.
MH: It doesn’t just have to be grounded in an act of position or an act of power. Because once you start thinking of postmodernism as an ethic of radical interconnection, you start to realize that your own systems of meaning are interconnected with wider systems of meaning, which are not even necessarily all human. You can see weather patterns as he systems of meaning, you know, the discipline of bio semiotics is really about the entire natural world as a meaning-making system all the way down to the cellular level and all the way even down to inorganic systems in the sea. The natural world doesn’t think of information in the inert way that we’re used to. It’s all meaning.
WT: It’s interaction.
MH: Meanings are always contextual. And they’re always developed in relation to one another.
WT: Right. And so I guess that would mean that grounding are sort of shared structures of meaning in our relation to the rest of the natural world in some way.
MH: Yeah. A very profound and I would call it an aesthetic, you know, because it’s not an intellectual experience. And not even one which is very easy to verbalize, but an aesthetic experience of the greater systems within which we exist and make our own meanings.
WT: No, I certainly find that compelling. And I’ve got ideas in that direction.
MH: I think we’re a long way from there, but my feeling is that if we’re going to do something positive with this software download, it’s in that direction.
WT: No, I totally agree with that. I think that’s the direction to be looking—how do we re-ground some notion of the Good and our relation to the rest of the world in this sort of postmodern way where we’re right in it and we’re part of it and—
MH: If we were to do anything constructive to help create a future in which that becomes possible, I think it would be to re-center the idea of beauty in how we how we educate our children, particularly at the level of beautiful illustrations for toddlers, all the way up to the environment you surround your children with, all the way up to beautiful drawings in your kids’ books, beautiful illustrations to go with your schoolwork. There is something in us which is innately capable of grasping beauty. This connects with Christopher, what’s his name? Sorry, his name eludes me, but the guy who writes for—
WT: Christopher Alexander?
MH: Yeah, the guy who writes about Pattern Language in the built environment. And I would connect that you know, again, this is this is all very frontier stuff in my own patterns of thought, but I connect that with the work that Goethe did on metamorphosis, which is really about pattern language in the natural world. If we can be thinking in terms of systems and pattern languages, and the ways in which those work across the civilization and human and also the natural worlds and to an extent are in dialogue with one another, and the sense in which you know, humans are able to grasp what we perceive, beauty is really about us being in right relationship with those patterns.
WT: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. There’s something to beauty which is very much about things being in right relation and about expressing a truth. The most beautiful things I find—when I sort of examine the concept of beauty, and I go and look at which things are beautiful and which things aren’t, it seems to me that the things that are beautiful are those that are in some sense getting at some truth—not necessarily like some declarative truth like “x is true,” but that there’s some sort of system of right relations between things and some discipline to reality that has produced this artifact. Like, a human body at the height of its beauty—it’s this highly functional structure. It’s built for running around on the savanna and throwing spears and wrestling and living and doing all this stuff, and it’s very much optimized to an incredible extent for that kind of stuff. And there’s beauty coming out of that process because to become optimized in that way, it has to become true in some sense and in a way that is beautiful. It has to become beautiful to actually be able to do that stuff. You look at a large cat or something like a lion, right? A lion has the same sort of beauty, it’s this, this beauty of optimization for its environment that produces this sort of sculpted form that’s sleek and and capable.
Or you look at the beauty of a tree, and it’s the same kind of thing, right? It’s got this form to it that is kind of the best form for the way it is living. And in having to discover that form it has had to become beautiful. And then not just in living systems but in natural systems, you look at like the meandering bends of a river or something. Right? There’s beauty in that and it’s in this form of just how the water relates to the ground around it and how the flow relates to things and how momentum works. And there’s a truth being revealed in that structure. That’s kind of how I interpret beauty.
MH: Yeah – William Ophuls, I don’t know if you’ve come across him as a writer.
WT: I haven’t.
MH: You might find you might find his work interesting. He writes about a future of politics based on scarcity as we come out the other end of this kind of crazy burning up of resources that we’re currently in. And he talks very much about a new politics based on virtue, which is grounded in an appreciation of our limits. He talks a lot about the aesthetic, the impact of constraint and how constraints are, in fact, what produces beauty.
WT: I’ve stated this before as: beauty lives in the limits of possibility.
MH: Exactly, and that’s a profoundly sort of systems-based ecological perspective on what beauty is, or in a sense is sort of an aesthetic understanding of what an ecology is, you know, that it kind of works in both directions. And I think that’s my sort of hunch about where we’re heading in terms of an ethics which is appropriate to a more sort of postmodern, systemic, intersubjective understanding of what we are and how meanings are made.
WT: Yeah, I completely agree that it’s gonna be something in that direction. I’m sort of looking forward to contributing to that and seeing where it goes. And so let’s take that for granted— there exists this very positive outcome to this thing. And so we’ll take it back to that college experience and back to the kind of original theorists of postmodernism, why did they not go there? That’s maybe not a fair question. They kind of, you know, again, like everyone else just thrown into the water and they had to figure out how to swim on their own.
MH: One or two of them I think actually did, but because they were women, they mostly got ignored.
MH: The French feminists, there’s Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and I forget the third, but there were three, there were three French feminists who wrote a great deal about essentially a sort of ethic of merging with wider systems of meaning, you know. I mean, again, this is a bit of theory which I’m not very familiar with. But to the best of my understanding, French feminism, rather than retreating into this semiocidal fury, kind of traumatized destruction of meaning in reaction to the decentering of the rational subject, they went in the other direction towards the dissolution of the rational subject as a kind of orgasmic moment of wonder and reconnection with all of creation. It sounds a bit mental, but it’s another take on what we’ve just been talking about. So, it’s perhaps fairer to ask not “why did none of them go there?” But “why did the ones who went there not get listened to?”
WT: Yeah, and that’s the sort of the damning thing happening here is that—I think the way we’ve ended up interpreting this and the way we’ve ended up using this is just as a bludgeon in culture wars, so to speak. And the way that our postmodernism ended up getting constructed was as a way to attack another faction of humans within this liberal structure. So, you have this this kind of conflict between a more elite faction against the everyday normal people. And that conflict is very unfortunate. Where it came from is complicated and historical, but you have this conflict in society, and so you have—I think our elite systems of thought ended up picking up the theorists that were most hostile to the social order around them, and the social order that the people kind of engaging in that stuff identified as their political enemies. That’s where you get the hostility to a lot of sort of traditional forms of life, the hostility to all of the groundings of our social fabric. We ended up using this not to construct a shared beauty for society, but to attack, to undermine the other guy’s systems of meaning
MH: After a few decades of the liberal experiment in dismantling all social norms, it’s very clear that the people most well-equipped to navigate that are the other people who were better off to begin with. It’s very obvious that the social norms and the social structures had played a much more critical role for poorer people. Just as a form of social support, as a form of solidarity for all kinds of reasons. And people who have an existing store of cultural capital who can afford to move house if it all goes wrong, who can afford to buy and services to replace the family that’s disintegrated around them, etc., and so on. You know, you do very well under the new dispensation, but the people who actually relied on extended family, and who really needed that stable marriage, because they just didn’t have very much else, economically speaking. They’re really screwed now. And the fact that that’s happened in parallel with the sort of renarrating in this triumphalist way this kind of dismantling of a more mutualistic economy in favor of something heavily financialized and engaged in kind of global race to the bottom tax competition.
It’s no coincidence because they’re two sides of the same coin. In both cases, it’s a winner takes all kind of an ideology that frames itself as liberation. But the moment you start scraping away at whose liberation are we talking about?—and is liberation as much fun for everybody all the way down the food chain, you start running into some quite difficult questions. So in that sense, I’m still a rabid lefty, even if in some cultural senses I’ve perhaps—
WT: Right. Well, I think one of the things that’s actually going out the window with this stuff, as people really start to try to grapple with this, is a lot of the right-left distinction itself.
MH: The vantage point from which you and I are looking at all of this stuff is sort of coalescing roughly around post-liberal, I guess. As much as I have a designation, that’s probably the one I’m most comfortable with.
WT: Yeah, and what that will come to mean, who knows, and whether that will still represent the way we see things—I mean, it’s very difficult to label these things. But I am comfortable kind of throwing out the sort of right-left distinction because it seems to be an artifact of just the structural conflicts within the kind of modernist political structures that we had.
Those structural conflicts, I think, are what is producing the toxicity of the way we’ve handled postmodernism. Our first instinct with postmodernism was: how do we weaponize this against the social structures of our political enemies, rather than: how do we construct shared meaning?
MH: Yeah, absolutely. And I look at the running internet guerrilla war between the social justice left and the alt-right, which is not something, you know, I mean, that’s generally a rabbit hole I try and avoid going down because—
MH: Life is just too short. But my sense of it is that within the groups that are engaged in that conflict, there’s very little discussion of how class inflected it is. There’s the social justice left. I think if you throw a wet fish into a crowd of the social justice left socio-economically, they would be almost guaranteed to be from a much higher class than the alt-right.
WT: Yeah. And we had this article from Natalia Dashan about that, or about part of that. Our article on Yale and Yale campus politics called The Real Problem at Yale is Not Free Speech. And that one examined the thesis that a lot of the reason people are wholeheartedly throwing themselves into this new paradigm, or this weaponized version of this new paradigm, is that it allows them absolve themselves of their power in society. They are, in fact, from the classes that have large amounts of power and privilege and wealth in our society, but to throw yourself into this kind of deconstructed, deconstructive project that you’ve called semiocide, allows them to feel that they’re doing the right thing despite that privilege. Which ironically, that privilege itself has kind of been pathologized by this perspective. It says your power in society is bad, power is bad, to make up for this you have to go and destroy systems of power.
It comes from having lost any confidence in any shared meaning structure that could be the basis for an elite. And if you don’t have any confidence in being an elite and leading society along some trajectory, then you don’t want to be in that position anymore, especially when your philosophy kind of pathologizes the idea of power. And so, there’s definitely a sense in which the people who sort of are leaping into this—-a lot of time they are they are actually legitimately marginalized people, but a lot of the time as well, it’s these very privileged kids who are struggling with the guilt of that, given that their philosophical structure doesn’t have any positive expression of privilege.
MH: You guys around Palladium are a bit more recently out of college university than me. Do you have a sense of anything more positive coming through than this kind of process of mutual self-destruction?
WT: My own experience with college has been, you know, that was 10 years ago now. I went to sort of what I call affectionately a backwater technical college, where we focused on practical things like engineering, and I got a very good education there. But they would occasionally attempt at giving us a humanities education, often in this postmodern paradigm. But given the very practical and objective grounding of engineering, it just didn’t take with us, so I don’t have much experience directly with the campus environment stuff.
That said, we’re situated here in Berkeley, partially to engage with the students at Berkeley, which we have been doing. There are some very smart students at Berkeley who have been engaging with us and with new paradigms. And we see a lot of this stuff just in a more advanced, unfortunately, mode of expression than it sounds like you saw. Like with you, it was sort of like you individually and you’re struggling with these systems of power. Now it seems like it’s kind of still in that mode, just wider spread.
MH: Whereas I was sitting there in a group of friends, all of whom seemed capable of speaking to one another as though their words were actually capable of crossing the gap between people without just becoming hopelessly garbled. Everybody else seemed to be basically fine apart from me. And I was just lost in this this web of constant mutual micro—I mean, what now gets called and theorized as microaggressions. I experienced that that whole time when I was in that state of mind. Yeah. You know, the sense that almost everything was in some sense an encroachment on my psychic space in some way. And I have a lot of sympathy with what that’s like, it’s really unpleasant, you know, I have immense compassion for anybody who’s going through it through that.
But I also feel incredibly worried about the future of a society in which that’s not just widespread but accepted and is becoming the basis of a new politics for the elite.
WT: Yeah, well, I think it’s kind of self-destructive as a basis for politics, and that’s sort of good and bad. And you know, the bad side is obvious. It means that our elite is going to self-destruct and self-destruct our society along with them.
MH: Is this where Palladium goes full accelerationist on me?
WT: The good is that it’s not going to be around for very long.
MH: *Laughs* So you guys have gone full accelerationist.
WT: No, no, I’m actually not at all. I want this thing to get resolved properly. Not: “let’s blow this all up.” But what I’m just saying is that the thing is definitely accelerating, and, to use a little bit of religious language, God always wins in the end.
MH: I mean, I have some hope for Generation Z, I guess, your Zoomers. Yeah, I have some hope. I think a bunch of them are a lot more—I mean, so they’re really screwed up in some ways, a lot of them.
WT: I think the bulk of them are really screwed up.
MH: But some of some of them, there’s some really interesting perspectives coming through. And these are kids who have grown up never having not learned the internet. I mean, I’ve got a foot in the old world in that sense. I got my first email address at college. I can remember not having a cell phone.
WT: These these kids got their first Facebook page before they were born.
MH: That’s got to give you a different outlook on pretty much everything. So I think it will be interesting to see what comes through because they’re not like the millennials.
WT: Yeah, and I think again to come back to the question of hope. The thing that I am seeing that’s maybe more hopeful—it’s not like oh, yeah, everyone’s just kind of working their way through it. It’s that a few people are working their way through it. You see these Zoomers—they’ve grown up in this sort of postmodern, post-meaning environment, which is really kind of post-apocalyptic, and they’ve decided that that’s not for them and they’re going to latch on to alternative systems of meaning from that.
Some of that takes the more alt-right expressions, which is unfortunate, because I think as you critiqued, that’s still not actually through the fire in a way, but I think—
MH: I’ve had a look at Bronze Age Mindset. I confess I’ve not read all through it yet. I have to do it in small doses. But what’s really struck me so far is how much it reminds me of Naked Lunch. Have you ever read Naked Lunch?
WT: No, I’m not familiar.
MH: It’s an American, William Burroughs. He was a heroin addict in the mid-20th century, and he wrote using a cut-up technique, which is to say he wrote a bunch of stuff down and then cut it up and glued it all back together again in different forms and that was his text.
MH: And then he just wrote this kind of crazy sort of impasto collage effect. Very, very poetic, very insane. It’s sort of a pretty accurate representation of being completely out of your box. Just completely smashed on whatever. But you know, very sensuous, very erotic, very vitalistic, in the way that Bronze Age Pervert is very vitalistic. I think he has a lot of cultural influence, that guy, and should be taken seriously as a writer. I need to delve into his book. But what I found really striking is it feels all so oddly nihilistic and oddly insubstantial in a way which I don’t associate. You know, he gets called a conservative. I don’t think he’s a conservative.
WT: Yeah, no, I wouldn’t lump those people in with conservatives. What I’m seeing, a lot of that and the broader kind of alt-right is that they’re experimenting with things, and they’re playing with things that, you know like you say, kind of nihilistic, but they’re a reaction to this kind of post-apocalyptic postmodernism that unfortunately has ended up expressed at our universities and so on. And they haven’t come up with the new kind of resolution to this thing yet. You know, as we were discussing earlier: how do we resolve this in terms of our ecological and social interconnections? I’m not seeing stuff like that. It’s still sort of in this irony and reaction and rebellion phase. But I see the people engaging with some of that stuff and some other stuff. You know, some of the other things I was mentioning like the meaning crisis people, the meta-modern people, the generative anthropology people.
I see the smart kids who are engaging with this stuff are in engaging with it in a healthy way. That’s what I would say. I am seeing people engaging with this stuff in a healthy way. And looking for healthy expressions that are also philosophically well put together and advanced. I think a large fraction of those people end up spiraling off into various sidetracks, whether religious or like nihilistically political, or whatever, or things that I think are sidetracks. Perhaps some of them obviously will have different interpretations. But I do see a lot of people sort of like grappling with this stuff and exploring it in a healthy way.
And that kind of, again, is what’s giving me hope. I see them discovering the things that look like where the intellectual activity is that’s actually going to resolve this whole meaning crisis for us. So just to your question about what hope there is, that’s where I’m seeing it.
MH: That’s really encouraging to hear. I mean, I live in small town in England these days, and I’m in contact with people via my work as a writer, but I’m like 20 miles from Cambridge. So, you know, within hailing distance of a university town, but not in regular contact with young people who are starting to think politically today. So it’s really encouraging to hear from you guys in your work that there here are some glimmers of hope, and that there are some there are some Zoomers who are coming through who aren’t just, you know, hell-bent on semiocide.
WT: Yeah, not to be inaccurate about the bulk of the thing—I don’t even see that the majority of them are sort of bent on semiocide. It’s more like: there’s a small minority that are very vocal in that orientation. And everyone else has to kind of take them seriously because they haven’t discovered an alternative to it.
WT: And then you have another small minority that’s not vocal, but there and very energetic, kind of doing these explorations and looking for that alternative. I don’t know how long this stuff is going to take. One of the reasons we started Palladium really was to throw up a banner that people could discover and rally around in a way of—you know, we’re trying to construct a positive vision of the future here. This is what we’re doing with the governance futurism project. Let’s look at this problem of governance of our society and look at its future and grapple with it through these very philosophical problems and these structural problems that we’re going through and try to understand what comes out the other side.
So, we’re sort of disproportionately in contact with the people who are trying to find positive ways through this thing just because that’s the banner we’re throwing up, but I can assure you that they do exist.
MH: Do you do feel optimistic that there is a future full-stop for the governance either of your nation or mine? There are times when I look around, and I think, you know, if we if we end up at Bali with technology, as William Ophuls put it, we’ll be very lucky. Because the less optimistic possibility is one set up by Paul Kingsnorth and my old creative collaborator Dougald Hine, the Dark Mountain Project, who take the view that we’re all basically screwed and any of us who want to retain any knowledge whatsoever ought to start building monasteries or whatever the contemporary equivalent of it is right now.
WT: Perhaps some people should be building monasteries. I think even in healthy times people should be building monasteries just as a kind of risk mitigation and so on. But I very much dislike the kind of very black outlook on things where everything’s screwed, we all just need to retreat to some flyover place and hole up and let the thing play out, which is going to be a collapse–
MH: That’s a very American take, anyway, because if you live on a small island, that’s not physically possible.
WT: But of course, in the English case, it’s let’s retreat to the countryside and just live well while the thing blows up. But I dislike that approach to things, and I always find myself frustrated with it because it’s just so unconstructive. I do see hope, not necessarily in any kind of return to normalcy, so to speak. I don’t think it’s going to go back to the 1990s, or any sort of approximation of that. You know, maybe even our countries, as sort of a Canadian-American here, and you as an Englishwoman, it’s like—our Anglosphere may look very, very different by the time we’re through all of this, but I think there is hope in kind of reconstructing a positive social and moral and spiritual order for our society.
And again, so I get frustrated with people who are like, “Oh, it’s hopeless.” For me, I see threads to be pulling on here that, even if the thing totally collapses into the ground and completely crashes, someone still has to do this work to get us back out of that. So it’s gonna have to happen eventually. And so we might as well just work on this, right? We might as well work on this project of governance futurism and the philosophical angles of that and the social angles and the lifestyle and so on. We have to figure out what does a positive life look like, coming out of this situation we’re in.
MH: There isn’t really an option B as far as I can see.
WT: You either go through it, or you avoid the question, and so I kind of get annoyed by the people who choose to avoid the question. But you know, that’s their thing. But I do see hope because I think something is going to come out of this. We’re not going to cease to exist. Like you were saying about being annihilated, I think we’re going to be annihilated conceptually, I don’t think we’re going to be annihilated physically. At least if we don’t choose to. Unfortunately, I think many people are sort of choosing approximately that. You know, you see these opioid crises and a lot of the way we treat each other ends up being physically destructive, but I don’t think we’re just going to be physically destroyed.
I think we’re going to have kind of a philosophical fire that we have to pass through, and a structural and political fire that we have to pass through, and I see sort of no other way than just trying to figure out what comes next positively and constructively.
MH: Yeah, I’m with you on that. There isn’t really there isn’t really an alternative because we reached the end of the road with the old paradigm. So, the project of reconstruction is kind of obligatory.
WT: Right, and reconstruction within this paradigm that we’re talking about. I think you do have to take this post-structuralist stuff seriously. It has to be consciously perspectival, consciously interconnected with all the systems of interaction that we exist in, you know, systems of power systems of ecology, social systems, etc. and we have to find ways to build an order within those systems of interconnection that we can believe in.
MH: If there’s any potential, for example, for revival of new spiritual movements, they will be in the context of the new paradigm. And I’m very curious, there’s something I’m completely ignorant on, for example, is whether or not any thinkers within the great religious traditions are engaging with postmodernism, or trying to think spiritually, trying to think theologically within a postmodern sort of a mindset. I’d be very, very curious to hear of anybody who’s—
WT: Yeah, I mean I would, as well. I’ve said before that Christianity certainly needs to grapple with this stuff, and I don’t think it has yet.
MH: Not to my knowledge, but I’d love to be corrected on that.
WT: Yeah, exactly. Islam is another one that I see having enough life to attempt to engage with it. Buddhism, I don’t understand a thing about Buddhism. You know, here in California, you do meet Buddhists, especially the sort of California-style Buddhists, and they are actually grappling with this very actively.
But I don’t understand enough about what they’re doing, or how their system works to really comment too much on that. Yeah, again, Islam. Funny enough, some of these smart kids that we meet who believe in the future and want to work on these projects are Muslim kids, and so that’s been interesting. Then what else do we have in terms of spiritual movements that are grappling with this? I’m not too aware of much else in terms of people really trying to grapple with this thing, but I would expect that people do figure out ways to sort of reground their traditions in a more perspectival thing, but it’s going to take philosophical greatness, I think, to pull it off. But to pull off anything on this level, you know, inside or outside of any particular tradition is going to take philosophical greatness. So, we all look forward to seeing that turnout. For my own sort of spiritual perspective, I don’t know how to describe it, but you know, I’ve definitely been grappling with this stuff, and I feel comfortable with the philosophical future. But learning to express that and share it with other people; that’s the part that requires the greatness.
MH: Yeah, I’m very interested in the place of ritual, particularly rituals with a very long tradition of their own, you know, the religious sacraments of—it doesn’t have to be any one particular faith. I mean, my familiarity is with the Christian faith. But you know, there are time-honored religious rituals in any number of different faiths, and I suppose I’m interested in how that sort of heritage and that tradition interacts with the sense of meaning being slippery and how people of faith come to terms with the idea that the divine is present, but in a sense, we’re also in that dialogue. It’s not a one-way thing. Does that make sense?
WT: Yeah, and ritual is certainly important, especially ritual with heritage. And then, again, the question is just: how do you ground what you’re doing? Rituals work best when you sort of believe in what’s happening there. There’s some—
MH: If you guys are thinking about this at all, I’d love to hear your take. Yeah. So, I have a number of conversations ongoing on this side of the pond on various sort of post-liberal subjects. And my post-liberal friends and colleagues span both people of faith and also non-believers. And one of the thorniest problems in the areas where people really tread most carefully is around the question of grounding the sense of morality in a particular faith.
The sort of post-liberal conversation attracts a lot of Catholics, which is perhaps unsurprising when you when you think that Catholic social teaching is one of the few vantage points that has persisted within Western Civilization, from which it’s possible to critique liberalism with any sort of coherence. So, as a result, there’s a whole bunch of Catholics; they’re heavily represented in post-liberal conversations in the UK. And my sense is, to a degree on your side of the pond, as well, you know, people are integralists like Adrian Vermeule.
MH: Yeah, is he Harvard?
WT: Yeah, Vermeule is at Harvard. And then there’s a few other factions of post-liberal Catholics.
MH: Right, there’s American Affairs, which is kind of conservative, but also kind of post-liberal, but anyway, the question that preoccupies me is: how can we find a way of regrounding political authority in some shared conception of the Good that has room for people of faith but also non-believers? And is it even possible? Is an ecumenical integralism even possible? And the answer to that might just be no, but it’s a question that keeps—
WT: My take on that is, I think one of the things that this postmodern transition is going to force us to come to terms with is—it’s going to force a certain level of honesty about how these imperial spiritual orders actually work. And liberalism has done this for some time—they do operate as a sort of imperial spiritual order, and they reinterpret, they forcefully reinterpret the religious systems that exist within their realm. They chop the pieces off of them that are not compatible with liberalism, and they graft on new stuff that makes it more compatible with liberalism, as a sort of conception of life.
Religions that have been within the liberal sphere for a long time, or were sort of even influential on the founding of liberalism, like American Protestantism and the English streams of Protestantism. Those are almost indistinguishable from liberalism these days with a bit of a theological veneer. I shouldn’t be unfair, but many, many of the denominations I would say. There are, of course, other things going on— Catholicism at least in its mainstream existence, likewise, very much has been terraformed by liberalism. You do have your reactive elements within Catholicism; they are rather small within the Western world. Though I think the younger generations much more currency than in the older generations, just because the younger generations that have actually stuck with the thing are much more consciously post-liberal.
And then Islam is sort of very new to this process, new to being within the purview of liberalism, but is certainly being kind of reformulated by liberalism into just a mere cult within liberalism. And they’re sort of struggling with that and what that means for them. A lot of people are reacting against that process, as opposed to the particular content of liberalism. The thing that I think we’re going to be forced to deal with as a result of this postmodern honesty, which is really an honesty, is that that’s just how it works in a way. That when you have an empire, and that Empire has a conception of what the Good is for itself, it will within its borders, take other conceptual structures and other narrative structures and incorporate them into its own structure and chop off the pieces that it doesn’t like and add on pieces that it does like, and they become these functional specializations within a spiritual order, rather than you know, actually just truly unmolested—
MH: So, no, an ecumenical integralism is not possible—we just have to wait for the new hegemon to emerge and pick and make— I say that not cynically, but that’s what I understand from what you just said.
WT: Yeah, but I would hedge that, I would hedge that. It’s like yes, I don’t think a real ecumenicalism is possible in the way that liberalism has taught us to expect. Liberalism has taught us to expect: oh yeah, there’s just this objective, shared political structure that allows us to all have our own religions. And you know, we all exist within this order, but we’re all having our own religions.
MH: And the integralists have pointed out that that’s bullshit because the moment a religion, a tenet of the religion becomes political, then it gets extracted from religion and placed into the domain of politics.
WT: Right, so I think the answer is, no, theoretically, it’s not possible. The idea that it was possible is one of the lies of modernist modernism and liberalism. However, I think there are more and less totalitarian empirical spiritual orders. And the more totalitarian ones, you could imagine this like very iconoclastic, very aggressively terraforming version of—I mean, Islam has been like this in the past, Protestant Christianity was like this at certain times in Europe. Catholicism was a little bit less like this, a little bit more incorporative of the older paganisms, but still quite aggressive in rooting them out when it didn’t like them.
I sort of hold out hope for something that is, I mean, if I can speak with total absurdity in a way, but I actually don’t believe this is absurd, like an imperialist Unitarianism. Unitarianism regards all these religions as valid forms of worship, right? It’s like, look, we do have this shared conception of God and meaning structure and so on. And we sort of share that as human society. And we all have our own traditions of that, but we can see the validity in each other’s traditions. And we don’t have to get caught up in the differences, so to speak, and just learn from each other.
But again, this is itself something that is going to chop pieces off of religions and graft on pieces. It’s going to chop off more sectarian aspects and graft on more ecumenical aspects. But I do think that sort of thing is possible. I do think it’s possible to have an imperialist Unitarianism. But what that ends up looking like and where it comes from, who knows? But that’s just a theoretical possibility at this point, right? That’s just something that I’m kind of raising as sort of a pedantic—here’s how it could go that I think would be like a minimally traumatic.
MH: Yeah, I mean, your colleague Ash Milton said in a conversation we had a few weeks back, that he thinks it’s a good rule of thumb that whatever version of a political philosophy gets widely adopted at the popular level is pretty much 100% guaranteed to be the absolute worst version of that philosophy.
WT: Yeah, unfortunately. I’m perhaps not that pessimistic. I believe in the power of leadership to teach people good things, but you do need leadership structures to get that done.
This whole set of questions about how we’re dealing with postmodernism, how it’s going to affect our religious structures, our meaning structures, our social structures, there’s a huge amount here we could go on forever, and I think we’ve covered much more than I had hoped for, which is great. So, I’ve been very happy with this so far. If there’s any more questions you have to spark some discussion, let’s go for it. Otherwise, this would be a good place to wrap up.
MH: No, I’m good. I think that that feels like—ecumenical integralism is pretty much the outermost point of my long distance run trains of thought at the moment, so I’m happy to leave it there.
WT: Right. Okay. Well, we’ve had a great conversation here, Mary. Thank you so much for coming on. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
MH: All right. Thank you very much.
WT: All right. Well, with that, I think we’ll wrap up. I hope the listeners enjoyed it. I hope you learned something. We’ll see you next time.