Category Archives: Postmodernism

End Of Nations: Stage 5 Geography?

EDIT: Please note that the philosophy portions of my blog can now be found at TheoryEngine.org

The State Of Nations

Now

This post will be engaging with an article in New Scientist called End Of Nations by Debora MacKenzie. The featured image is also copyright New Scientist. The article suggests that nation states are currently ubiquitous, they also seem timeless and inevitable. However nation states are neither natural, nor inevitable. Instead, they  arise from the demand for increasingly complex social behaviours/increasingly complex activities.

“The key factor driving this ideological process, [of creating nations] was an underlying structural one: the development of far-reaching bureaucracies needed to run complex industrialised societies.”

This tallies well with the pages in Meaningness relating to Modernity and the rise of the systemic/stage 4 society. David’s pages state (and I agree) that these notions are academic common knowledge. This article by Mackenzie is an excellent read in terms of demonstrating the academic literature in an easy to digest way. So… go read it.

Still here? Well one takeway from the article is that Nations are currently the largest “container” we have for power. This is not useful when trying to solve global problems.

“… there is a growing feeling among economists, political scientists and even national governments that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We must manage vital matters like food supply and climate on a global scale, yet national agendas repeatedly trump the global good. At a smaller scale, city and regional administrations often seem to serve people better than national governments.”

So, what is the future?

The article discusses the European Union’s strengths and weaknesses.  The integration of European states to benefit from economies of scale is very positive. However Europe has a problem, because it is just another layer of heirarchy on top of heirarchical nations, and heirarchy might be a bad thing. Nations are a new and uncomfortable idea, so they have to preserve themselves with patriotic fanfare, sports teams and the like, but Europe’s heirarchy layer does not use all the patriotic tricks that nations themselves use to promote national identity, which is probably why everyone hates it, even though the principles of the EU are pretty solid.

The article also points out the global meetings of nations exist but have varying degrees of effectiveness – eg NATO, the UN. However,  the more informal, variable and goal-oriented groups such as the G-numbers (G8, G12) might actually be more effective.

The remainder of the article describes a proposed answer: evolving from heirarchies to networks. “Networks of regions, states and even non-governmental organisations”. Proponents call this neo-medievalism (because the medieval model was much more fuzzy around the edges). “Networked problems require a networked solution” says Anne Marie Slaughter. The article also talks about the possiblity of collapse as a crucible for new things.

I’m sure you’re by now with me thinking that this sounds like grasping towards stage 5 fluidity.

The article concludes that everyone agrees we still need nations, as a “container” of power (you can’t just throw out stage 4) but no-one can really imagine how politics would work in a network. Given that the world is changing and we have global problems, “it’s time to start imagining”.

Imagination Fail

I find this sentiment at the end of an article frustrating.

It reminds me of my frustration with AI movies. They often end at the moment the AI steps out into the real world (Ex Machina) or fall back onto unfulfilling, unrealistic emotional crap (Transcendence). Some tech friends claim we are experiencing a “fiction singularity”, a place where we simply cannot imagine our way beyond a certain point with AIs.

It seems we have a similar block here, imagining our way beyond stage 4 politics, capitalism, etc. Postmodernism is the “stage 4 politics singularity”.

Failures of imagination irritate the shit out of me. It seems like a poor excuse for failing to do something, or for believing something is not possible. If you can’t imagine something, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Try harder! Find imaginative people and ask them! Grrrr.

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I believe I am no more imaginative than average but we can’t all just throw our hands up in the air and hope someone else is dealing with it. So, here is an attempt at “imagining” how politics would work in a fluid network, rather than a heirarchy of discrete, nation-sized containers.

Imagine There’s No Countries

City Mayors

It seems obvious to me that large cities should work together in a global way. I imagine the mayors of London, New York and Tokyo could have a lot to say to each other. At the moment I think there is probably some borrowing of knowledge from one city to another, but a global network of cities creating shared goals (such as how to integrate travel between them more efficiently) for everyone’s mutual benefit seems like a good way forward. I think creating carbon emissions goals between major cities could also have as a big an impact as nations could. Luckily, mayors also already have some power.

Regional Networks & Tasks

The same idea could be applied to rural areas – in the UK Prince Charles is really into that sort of thing. I am imagining conferences on farming that are wider than just either: corporates or NGOs or charities or Government departments, but rather mix their participants based on topic, not polital unit.

This also implies the strength harnessed by Kickstarter: organise around tasks/goals. This is where the G-numbers have had success. It is important however that participants have the power to make changes. We could confer temporary task-force power on such people.

Some regions might want to hang out around “not feeling like they are part of their surrounding nation” like the Basque area of Spain and Massachusetts. They could chat about how to make free cities actually work.

Fuzzy boundaries

An idea to get our heads around might be that it is ok for some cities/regions to have more fuzzy boundaries. There are huge back and forth debates about country boundaries and visas, which I’ve only vaguely looked into, but I propose that boundaries can be more flexible than that.

They could be fuzzy for certain things or for certain people but solid for others, such as perhaps creating a global accord for academic visas, but still be more strict on tourist/working/immigration visas. Europe’s national boundaries now work in this way, with open borders for EU residents, while political borders remain in tact.

But boundaries could also be fuzzy only for certain times. Burning Man is an example of laws, cities, resources and boundaries that only exist at certain times of the year.

What are your ideas for stage 5 politics?

 

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Postmodernist Territory

Cover Photo by James Walshe

Intro: You already know this stuff

Sometimes people feel they don’t grasp Postmodernism because they believe it must be complicated, when in fact many parts of it are “obvious”, “normal” or already part of everyday life. We live in a postmodern world and from the end of high school onwards we have been taught and use postmodern principles. Some people feel they don’t understand Postmodernism because of an absence of a  lengthy explanation of it, they feel it must have long words or difficult concepts. There must be a certain amount of forehead wrinkles and frowning before you can say you Get It when it comes to Postmodernism. Whereas the truth is that no-one explains it at length because there is nothing more to say that you don’t already know from your postmodern life experience. To a postmodern person, Postmodernism really is quite “simple” and its concepts appear to be self-evident.

Modernity

Postmodernism is the word for thoughts you have as an inevitable result of achieving Modernism.

I highly recommend this essay by Nadia Rodinskaya about the two shifts in intellectual thought that humans have had so far. Seriously, it’s very enlightening and lays the ground for what is said here. Meaningness talks about this in detail too.

Modernism is stage 4 incarnate, all human life systematised and interlocking extremely well. Some systems are so efficient that human actors are no longer needed (eg factories). Urban planning has gone from not existing to common knowledge. Machines and rational efficiencies have been used in every corner of life, not excluding “natural” life eg farming but also eating, sleeping and defecating. Everything has optimised systems to manage processes in increasingly efficient ways. They are entirely invented and maintained by system 4 successes, normally in terms of civic government & services or capitalist concerns – these include banks, trade routes etc as well as business entities.

These projects need not be complete in every domain for the problems of systems to become intellectually apparent. The precursors of Postmodernism in philosophy were writing in the 19th century. In some ways the next 100 years was a project of figuring out what the hell to say but first building a language to say it in. In the 1960s – 80s  the stuff that the Postmodern philosophers were coming out with was pretty great (and their thoughts are precursors to Constructivism in Nadia’s essay).

At first there were a lot of counter arguments that challenged the status quo of how to think about science and the assumptions we have about knowledge. Criticising Modernism.

Then they made up new ideas about knowledge and meaning (and most people don’t know that part).

Part 1: The counter argument

Post-structuralist critique part 1

Some philosophies in the 20th century were about trying to find an underlying structure to human behaviour, just like that which had been found in physics, biology and so on. The most famous was linguistics – trying to find how language is acquired and what rules govern it.  The people who we now call post-structuralists critiqued this idea in two ways. Firstly, they stated that people do not operate according to structures. Secondly, that as people ourselves it is impossible to “get outside” of a human system to have a scientific, “objective” view of human systems.

They did this in a fancy way and Derrida is the leader, and his stuff is really dense. If you’d like to know more about the details of critiquing structures philosophically, he’s your man.

Inherent bias: Feminists smash up social theory, art and psychology.

One of the ways to know that people do not fit nicely into structures is to be someone for whom the structures do not work, people who are squished or erased by “objective” notions of how people are. The most numerous people in this category are women. Feminist writers took apart everything we thought we already knew in the 20th Century.

Art

Susan Sontag’s critique of cameras as phallic, ahistorical, unreality-death-machines in ‘On Photography’ is utterly dark and convincing. If you’d like some Postmodern nihilism, I can’t recommend this enough.

Psychology

Luce Irigaray’s project was critiquing psychoanalysis. Her books wade in and deconstruct every aspect of psychoanalysis with feminist theory so new and so extreme it’s like a welding torch. In hindsight, Freud was easy pickings for feminists since he based all his theories on men and then sometimes created a ‘mirror image’ for women or just presumed women were the same. Nope.

Irigaray’s alternative feminist psychoanalysis project was a brave and complicated effort, but I think is kind of pointless except as an intellectual exercise because psychoanalysis never had much good to say about women and finally not much good to say about anything after a certain point. It was extremely important but I think more as a step on the path than a Theory of Everything.

Literature

I think it was via Luce Irigary that I came across the idea that not only essays and novels but language and sentence construction itself is an imposed patriarchal system. That grammar rules are a too-strict arbitrary system that restricts its user base, creates unnecessary hierarchies and loses richness of meaning in favour of technical rules.

I think that is mostly silly but none the less there is the seed of an important idea in there. Kathy Acker did some extraordinary literary experiments involving stuff like this, so if you’d like a book that makes William Burroughs’ cut-up technique look like child’s play I recommend her work. Lots of sex and blood too.

Female Life

Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex was published in the 1940s and still endures as relevant today. It totally nailed the description of female life within and without these structures built by men in the everyday world. If you want a primer for feminist thoughts and only read one book: dip in and out of this one. Simone de Beauvoir was an existentialist philosopher and because of this book she totally beats Sartre on historical significance and coolness.

Conclusion

All these structures you thought you’d made suck balls and don’t work.

Not rational digression

Just a quick digression: it was only as a result of postmodern thinking that anyone questioned the idea that humans typically act in a rational way. It took until the 1970s before psychology devised experiments that showed that not only are people more governed by their emotions than previously thought but that they actually act really irrationally, all the time, even if you try to help them with the way you devise the test.

The 70s! Think about that. It’s hard to imagine that before that, everyone was presumed to be rational. Well, white men at least. This assumption was key to propping up all the institutions we have. In fact it still is. How to deal with irrational agents operating inside a rational system is still something we are struggling with.

Post-structuralist critique part 2

Ok, so far I’ve only really talked about current structures for humans being flawed. That doesn’t mean the principle of systems is wrong, does it? Well, now for the good stuff: later Postmodern philosophers point out that “scientific” thinking is also just wrong according to its own principles.

This is talked about a lot by Foucault, using a technique he called “archaeology” to compare scientific reasoning, methodology and behaviour over time. He argued that self-proclaimed ‘objective’ systems of thought were constituted entirely from contingent historical and social influences and the changes within disciplines or the invention of new disciplines are all entirely guided by these cultural and accidental influences. In fact, they always have been.

At first he looked at specific areas, like the history of mental illness, then the medical clinic but eventually he did a history of “the human sciences”.

It became increasingly apparent with Foucault that not only was it foolish to apply physics-like principles to systems for human beings but that all science, physics included, is so skewed by cultural sanction as to lose all ability to claim objectivity or to elucidate ‘truth’.

(No arguing with me in the comments before you’ve read some of his work.)

 

The 4.5 gap

Many people and philosophies get stuck here. Systems seem to have it wrong and the critique of that is quite convincing. This makes systems seem to be interchangeably bad, or in another way to be equally valid. Ethical relativism looms large in particular. Very common in normal postmodern life seems to be the idea that “all opinions are valid”. There seems to be an impasse as to how to judge anything, and whether any meaning is even possible.

Is this the missing stance combination of monist nihilism? We have moved on from stage 4, which tends to favour the division of things into categories because it is a stage of independence and separation. We are moving towards a stage of inclusion (like the previous stage 3), implying a move away from division, but nothing seems to mean anything. Therefore, “all is one” in the sense that old categories do not exist, “all is one” in the sense that all is interchangeable/equivalent and the stance is “nihilist” because this equivalence erases meaning.

The real: a nihilist cul-de-sac

I’m placing this section here because it seems to fit a 4.5 nihilistic train of thought.

Lots of recent postmodern thinkers became caught up in the real, or specifically the absence of it, getting quite attached to the idea that no one can experience the real any more, using words like hyperreal or “real”.

Baudrillard talks about “the absence of negation” ie the negative side of real – “not real” -has gone. “Not real” has been replaced by something different – “artificial”, which is not quite the same. We run around in “artificial” a lot in everyday life and Baudrillard claims that since that is true, we also cannot experience real things any more because “artificial” is not the opposite of real, therefore both “real” and “not real” have become lost to us.

Baudrillard goes on and on with this stuff, but I’m not sure it needs exploring unless you really want to. The Matrix (the film) does in fact explain some of the main concepts pretty well, although Baudrillard is not talking about the ancient “brain in a jar” philosophical problem like The Matrix does.

I surmise that in 2016 we pretty much feel this concept intuitively. We all experience this real-not-real stuff on a day-to-day basis, especially when using the internet, but really it is in all forms of media.

I think Baudriallard was crapping his pants about losing a binary of real/not real and not knowing what will take its place. He seems to fear that humanity will collapse into a void. But, like almost everything, this hyperreal problem is not that scary, we are all basically fine with it in day-to-day life and the void has yet to swallow us. It also has loads of benefits which point towards stage 5 style usages.

Getting unstuck

So, it’s easy to get stuck here in monist nihilism because moving on from here is pretty hard. If not a system to make judgements, then what? What words can I even use? Luckily, philosophers come to the rescue, Thinking Very Hard is what we pay them for after all.

Part 2: What there is instead (the stuff people don’t know)

While it is clear that rational systems clearly don’t cut the mustard it is also clear that everything, especially social systems of persons, is not entirely in chaos. Social norms are in fact surprisingly consistent on the whole, even if they can differ in the details.

When postmodern philosophers discuss this they are pointing out what Meaningness.com calls pattern. They have come up with a few ways to talk about the nebulous yet patterned nature of life beyond systems.

Social inscriptions

Simone de Beauvoir not only described female life she also stated that gender was inscribed on a person by societal norms. Social rules can bruise one into conforming, sanctioned behaviour wears down grooves in a person from the outside. This is in contrast to the systemic idea that a personality springs from the inside, representing a unified self that maneuvers rationally within society. De Beauviour said that society both produces and potentially reduces the person. At the time de Beauvoir was not refuting notions of the self, merely adding to the spectrum of representation of the ‘norm’.

Much more recently the philosopher Judith Butler described her notions of the ‘performance’ of gender, where gender is a series of acts that you do rather than a thing that you are.

Each time a performance is accepted by others the information about permissible acts is reinscribed in the person. There is a continuous flowing feedback loop between self and other that is cooperatively reinscribed.

This process can be a powerful force to preserve the status quo, but there is possibility for change in this model since translations from person to person or within groups can gradually evolve new meanings, whether deliberate or accidental. In addition, challenging acts can be performed that may or may not gain acceptance. Art and jokes are places where challenging representations can be enacted.

Society then is seen as a continuous series of interactions, or dance of performative meaning. (We are starting to sound stage 5ish now aren’t we?)

This idea can be applied to any label or role in society as well as gender.

This more general trick of turning a noun (‘identity’) which is solid and fixed into a verb (‘performance of identity’) which is active and changeable is a useful technique for sliding around systemic thinking.

Rhizomes

I recommend being pretty stoned when reading Deleuze & Guattari but especially Deleuze. Or do I? All I remember is that they use the word “rhizome” a lot in ‘One Thousand Plateaus’ and seem to be describing both the bifurcation of plant limbs and also the flowing movement of stuff or information around pathways that are both well-trodden and also continuously changing.

(That and the black hole/white wall dichotomy which seems to me  to have the same unknowable message as the film 2001:A Space Odyssey but in overblown fancy French. )

Anyway the rhizome pathways seem quite cool as an idea. For a STEM application: I’ve seen some research talking about networks as a system of nodes that have a certain number of connections. The research involved flows of information, and examining whether the richness of connections that a node has effects that flow.

Power lines

After his analyses of modern systems of thought, Foucault went on to formulate explanations of modern society along different lines than that held by structures. His key ideas were around knowledge and power.

Foucault claimed that, for example, biological sciences are not in the practice of ‘objective study’, they are not uncovering something that was already there, like the rubbing of the gravestone, rather they are bringing into being the object of study. Science creates things that were not previously there by categorising, labelling and cataloguing.

In this way Foucault claims that the Victorians were not disinterested in sex, or prudish about it, rather they were obsessed with it. More cataloguing, category-making and forethought went into sex during this period than any other. The reason they did this was to make efforts to control it.

For Foucault, knowledge and power are inextricably linked. From the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

Foucault’s point is rather that, at least for the study of human beings, the goals of power and the goals of knowledge cannot be separated: in knowing we control and in controlling we know.

By knowing something, it can then be designated as “normal” or “abnormal” or “deviant”. In this way certain things can be sanctioned and other things repudiated. Power structures have evolved to reshape what is considered deviant behaviour, rather than simply punish acts. Foucault more often calls this power relations and describes flows of power around nexus points of knowledge and historical contingency.

He gives examples of these flows, which have influenced each other and sprung up for innocuous reasons but have become sites of power. One example is the examination.

The examination (for example, of students in schools, of patients in hospitals) is a method of control that combines hierarchical observation with normalizing judgment. It is a prime example of what Foucault calls power/knowledge, since it combines into a unified whole “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth”. It both elicits the truth about those who undergo the examination (tells what they know or what is the state of their health) and controls their behavior (by forcing them to study or directing them to a course of treatment).

Gutting, Gary, “Michel Foucault”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Here again I believe we have a powerful example of somewhat abstract things flowing around a network of node points with stable yet changing connections and configurations.

Making meaning

Almost all the Postmodern philosophers retreat to aesthetics or art to talk about how to make decisions and how to make meaning. I think they are touching on the same thing that I am talking about when I say “judging” and David at Meaningness is talking about with meta-rationality and meta-systemicity.

They seem to be saying that the decision making process is now closer to ‘aesthetic’ in the sense that it is more a matter of sensibility to make judgements, rather than recourse to objective facts. Some talk about fusing rhetoric with aesthetics, perhaps to show it comes from somewhere. More research needed!

Fluid Mode

It is my view that several Postmodern philosophers have given us a consistent language and concepts with which to grapple past stage 4.5. These concepts slice reality along different lines.

Foucault deals explicitly with boxing things up into categories and labels, and what happens when you do so. He then offers what seems to be a more “zoomed out” view of all these different systems, showing the flows of power and knowledge over, between and around the systems we have created.

Deleuze and Guttari’s rhizomes feel like this too. I think there is so much more to be discovered but the original writing is really dense. I would go for these guys over Zizeck any day of the week though.

Butler has described a continuous and flowing notion of a “self” and a “society”/”other” that is by necessity always a performance (and therefore not necessarily a “true self”) which is always collaborative, is often stable but always slowly changing.

(In an interesting side-note I listened to a lecture of hers which marries the rights of prisoners to the rights of disabled people through the concepts of freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. This is very related to Foucault, whose work focussed on prisons and marginalised groups. It also shows how to bring two unrelated groups together in the same thought process by examining an entirely different axis.)

Conclusion

To conclude: I believe these flowing, changeable things that none the less have pathways, grooves and nodes or nexus points are the metaphorical ideas to move forward with. It is this flowy nature that I use to identify possible fluid mode phenomena, and it was this postmodern background that lead me to think Meaningness.com was onto something.

Extras

Labels

In true stage 5/bisexual/Postmodern fashion, almost all post-structuralist and postmodernist philophers explicitly reject the labels applied to them. Some of them are not even philosophers, which is illustrative of formal categories breaking down in academia, which is itself illustrative of stage 5 thinking being well under way in thought arenas. The overarching placeholder word “theory” is now taken to mean the people and ideas I have mentioned plus many more, who range across disciplines.

Omissions and errors

I have attempted to make a sketch of philosophical postmodernism and have missed out loads of it. Tell me which bits you’d like an expansion on! I may have made errors.

Notes

I have yet to figure out proper notes and references, sorry. Below are authors who are often said to be post-structuralists, or to have had a post-structuralist period. These are philosophy based. The ones with stars are the ones I have read. Titles after the names are ones I recommend.

Kathy Acker *
Jean Baudrillard * ‘Simulations’
Judith Butler * ‘Gender Trouble’
Rey Chow
Hélène Cixous
Gilles Deleuze *
Jacques Derrida
Umberto Eco *
John Fiske (media studies)
Michel Foucault * ‘History of Sexuality Vol.1’
Félix Guattari *
René Girard
Luce Irigaray *
Sarah Kofman
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe
Jean-François Lyotard *
Jean-Luc Nancy
Avital Ronell

Also mentioned:

Simone De Beauvoir* ‘The Second Sex’

 

Emotional challenges of Stage 5

Required reading

This post uses a key framework of personal evolution by Robert Kegan.  It is summarised by David Chapman here.

This post is in dialogue with, and an expansion on, Chapman’s recent post about moving through stages 3, 4 and 5 in modern society (and the lack of support for it) here.

This post will not make sense unless you have read the other two posts first. They are somewhat lengthy, but I will be returning to these ideas as a basis for my blog posts for a long time, so it’s worth settling in.

Emotional challenges

Much has been said (some has been said) about the intellectual progression of stage 4 to stage 5. In this post I will outline some emotional challenges I faced (am still facing) to making the transition.

My evolving story

Four years on from university (which I attended a little later than average), at age 27, in the midst of deliberately making myself homeless and abandoning any regard for money, I was challenged to articulate the political position of a person on the opposite side of an argument to that which I held. I found I could indeed do so. It was common for me to hear that it is good to empathise with another person, and since I had been accused of failing in that area before, it was something I had been trying to attend to more closely. I was also aware of having to debate a position one personally does not hold (from Star Trek as well as school). So as an educated person I managed to imagine the position of someone who believed that austerity, small government and benefit cuts was an appropriate response to recession. I myself was about to go on a march against austerity, from the position that it made life worse for minority groups such as the disabled and also overly impacted a majority group: women. During that march I was extemely morose and it took some time to figure out why.

Beyond Empathy

Not only had I managed to do more than superficially imagine some arguments from “their side”, I could also understand why someone would hold that position. I could imagine which principles were important to that side of the political spectrum almost as clearly as I could see the principles that supported my own side. In addition, if supporters of that side believed the underlying assumptions or principles, they would not have to be stupid or amoral to believe the conclusions drawn from those principles.

It became clear that if one side is right, and the other wrong, it would be a matter of whether their principles were right or wrong. However, the more I thought about someone else’s side of the argument, the more their principles seemed at the very least appropriate for what they were trying to do. Their principles seemed logically right, (even if I thought they were morally wrong). And yet on my side of a debate, the principles seemed right too. How could this be?

Examining Assumptions

I began to realise that I had been making the assumption that my side’s founding principles were right and therefore the conclusions were also right and therefore the articulated position was morally right and therefore any different position that contradicted it must be wrong. In fact, dear reader, if you would care to re-read the opening sentence of the preceding paragraph to this one, you will notice the uncritical assumption – “if one side is right and the other wrong…” This very assumption came into view for the first time. The assumption that one position is right and that all other positions are wrong. It suddenly seemed self-evident that this was a silly assumption to make but at the same time I had clearly been operating with it for years.

Foundation Processes

I think I had been approaching these realisations gradually by being more and more open to the arguments from the ‘opposing’ side. I might have originally been motivated by the idea that one must “know thine enemy” – the better to thwart them. I felt meaningful progress could only be made if one engaged properly with another’s arguments and then was so persuasive with one’s own arguments that the other person would change their minds.

In addition, as a result of throwing myself into new situations, I was exposed to a person whom I liked but who used an entirely different framework from me to see the world. They came from a scientific, rational, logical background. They scorned my emotional/social view of the world as biased and refused to engage on the topic in anything other than their own ‘rational’ language. I could see they had some good points but also felt that they were missing something from their worldview. Out of sheer spite I began a long process of learning their technical language, in order to one day criticise them in a language they would understand.

Neither of these processes lead to their stated conclusions but: never underestimate the power of spite as a way to motivate learning.

In addition to the story told above about politics, I had similar conflicting intuitions when it came to money. The begninning of the story is here. I shall endeavour to write up the second half of the story soon. But in short, capitalism seemed to no longer be the spectre of evil I once thought it was.

Leaving the old stage

All of this lead to my eventual move out of stage 4. At the time, it felt like I had been booted out. Indeed in Kegan’s descriptions, a person at first criticises the world for not being what it appeared to be, and moving out of a stage is unpleasant. The current self has no desire to change.

Eventually, the criticism can be directed inward. Feelings of shame can arise when shifting through a stage change and I felt a certain amount of being intellectually ‘caught short’, the feeling of having been walking around with my pants down this entire time and no-one had told me.

Emotional problems shifting through change

And so we finally get to the subject of this post: emotional difficulties when transitioning out of Kegan’s Institutional evolution, stage 4. These descriptions are almost entirely focussed on intellectual growth as they seem easier to articulate. On emotional terms I feel more muddied. Perhaps I will post about that later.

Lack of stage 5 environments

One of the problems of this stage is a lack of cultural, institutional or familial frameworks to move towards when the previous thinking has been left behind. As of the 1980s, only 5% of adults may reach this stage. From Kegan:

“the requirements of the ‘holding environment’ within which to evolve become a taller order with each new evolution.”

There are therefore few, if any supportive voices to contradict the negative thoughts that accompany leaving a stage behind. This problem is discussed at length in Chapman’s post about people becoming lost at stage 4.5.

Loss of self, loss of identity.

Loss of the self is characteristic of all of the evolutionary stages:

“[people] may speak of a ‘loss of identity’ or that they have let themselves down, betrayed themselves, abandoned themselves”.

however this may be felt particularly strongly since:

“this is the first shift in which there is a self-conscious self to be reflected upon”

The instiutional stage 4 is characterised by adopting a system to order one’s life. This can partly mean aligning with a particular system that others also use which becomes an identity. For myself social justice style identity politics was my system. I aligned strongly with the left, with feminism, with minority sexuality and polyamory.

The negative thoughts which accompanied my new apparent relativism with regard to left and right wing politics, as well as capiltalism, were strong and distressing. I felt I was selling out, had lost my passion, was being weak or without resolve, was a traitor to the cause and I was particularly bothered by the phrase “you get more right wing as you get older”. I was terrified that this applied to me.

I applied these thoughts to myself because I believed my social group would do so if they knew what I was thinking, and I had no alternative viewpoints to challenge this “selling out” as anything other than negative. I could do nothing but accept these negative labels for myself. At this time I stopped any and all activism because I felt like a fraud and was also exhuasted from feeling this way.

Evil relativism

This longer passage from Kegan explains a common fear in 4-5 transition:

“All transitions involve leaving a consolidated self behind before any new self can take its place. At the 4-5 shift this means abandoning – or somehow operating without reliance upon – the form, the group, standard or convention. For some this leads to feelings of being “beyond good and evil”, which […] amounts to looking at the that beyondness from the view of the old self, and thus involves strong feelings of evil. Ethical relativism – the belief that there is no (nonarbitrary) basis for considering one thing more right than another – is, on the one hand, the father of tolerance: it stands against the condemning judgement; but it must also stand against the affirming judgement, and so is vulnerable to cynicism.”

Ethical relativism is a half-way point. One has realised that there probably is no perfect sytem that is “right”, rather all systems have validity given the way systems function (based on rules, assumptions, axioms or reasons, which therefore make them “rational”). However this leads a person to the conclusion that all systems are equal, have equal value, have equal utility, are interchangeable. I believed this for a while and it is quite frightening, leading one to a strong sense of nihilism.

In Kegan’s words:

“In the shift to stage 5 there is often a sense of having left the moral world entirely; there is no way of orienting to right and wrong worthy of my respect. This is the killing off of all standards, the attempt to be not-me (who is his standard) – the cynic, or existentially despairing.”

Short Postmodern digression

This problem is exactly where an unsophisitcated grasp of postmodern thought runs into trouble (Postmodernism can be seen largely as a 4.5 stage of philosphy). Postmodernism is the critique of Modern “systems” of thought, or rather a critique of the idea that the world can be apprehended through systemic thinking. This part was the focus of most Postmodern writing and is the easiest to grasp when discovering the topic.

When one reaches this far with the ideas it is easy to think that when Postmodernism is saying that “all systems of thought that give rise to opinions have arbitrary foundations” it is also saying that “all opinions have equal value”. This is not actually the case but it takes a long time to untangle. It takes a much closer and much longer study of Postmodern ideas to grasp what Postmodernism is moving towards, rather than away from. More on this in a later post.

Loneliness

When this shift out of a strucutual Identity is occuring it is no longer possible to associate with other people who are still firmly embedded in The Identity [whatever it is]. It is key to realise that this process is not voluntary for the person changing, they have no desire to suddenly be alienated from their friends, but at the same time thoughts cannot be unthought and changes are taking place regardless of desire.

I felt a distance from other people of The Identity that I had not felt before. I no longer agreed with them in the way they needed me to. If I voiced my new thoughts they saw me as dissenting for no reason or diluting the cause.

Eventually I no longer felt that my new thoughts were wrong, I felt they represented a new way to see the world, but I also knew that there was no point forcing the ideas onto people who were not ready for them. This made the alienation from certain people, and from certain parts of many people, inevitable.

This can be extremely problematic if one’s social circle is entirely made up of people who share The Identity. If there is no-one who can be part of a non-judgemental “holding environment” during these changes, it could lead to much heartache or even emotional/psychological problems that require professional intervention. (There is of course nothing wrong with seeking professional help, indeed it is absolutely the best thing to do, I am simply saying that it is nice to not have to).

During my initial moments of crisis, I took myself away from my city and all my friends. I think I experienced a lack of an environment for change. I finally found people who were confirming of the change and over some years of stability with new friends I feel I have progressed from the worst of the dissonance.

Now what?

Having dealt for some years with making this change (across some axes of my life at any rate), I feel somewhat more stable in my meta-systemtic state, but the loneliness persists. I feel comfortable again with interacting with others who have a different worldview, in fact I can see the extremely high value of their operations, in thought and in life. But I am always searching for others who may be able to understand some of my new ways of thinking.

Chapman proposes that much of society operates using stage 4 systems that interact with each other and I think that that is correct. (Systems interacting sounds pretty much stage 5 and indeed all society is actually constantly moving. However many societal systems rely heavily on being the “correct” system to function, most notably politics).

So what about stage 5-style operations that are larger than individuals? A stage 5 society?

Kegan notes that even proposing a stage 5 can be problematic:

“Suggesting that there is a qualitative development beyond psychological autonomy and philosophical formalism is itself somewhat controversial, as it flies in the face of cherished notions of maturity in psychological, philosophical, scientific and mathematical realms.”

In later posts I will spend some time imagining what stage 5 is or means for an individual (Kegan is more vague on this stage than the other stages) and what it is or means for a society. What would stage 5 societies look like? What features would it have? Do our societies already have stage 5 organisations in place? If so, what are they? Is there a way for individuals to safely encourage stage 5 institutions?

Also, check out the rest of meaningness.com for more fascinating (and in my view comforting) descriptions of how one might choose to make sense of the world.

Reaching Stage 5 – non STEM

Required reading

This post uses a key framework: Chapman’s version of Robert Kegan’s theories of emotional, cognitive and social development, it is summarised here.

This post is in dialogue with, and an expansion on, Chapman’s recent post about moving through stages 3, 4 and 5 in modern society (and the lack of support for it) here.

This post will not make sense unless you have read the other two posts first. They are somewhat lengthy, but I will be returning to these ideas as a basis for my blog posts for a long time, so it’s worth settling in.

Reaching Stage 5

As previously discussed, it might be harder than it used to be to reach stage 4 in current society. Humanities students may have it pretty bad (and presumably the other 60% of the population with no higher education at all). STEM students have the best chance of achieving stage 4.

Employment is the other stage 4 structure which might support stage 3 people. But as Kegan has pointed out, up to one third of the adult American population are stage 3 people living uncomfortably inside a stage 4 society, including stage 4 employment, without acheiving stage 4 themselves through their working environment.

So Chapman focusses on creating new structures to support stage 4 STEM educated people to progress to stage 5 with less difficulty. He is correct to identify this group as potentially the lowest hanging fruit.

In this post I will talk about my own experiences of (I think) reaching stage 4 and 4.5 not quite through STEM education, rather through a mixture of politics and STEM-type things. The purpose is to potentially identify next-lowest hanging fruit and possible cultural change that will support more stage 4 development that is not through STEM.

Personal caveats

I’m currently reading one of Robert Kegan’s books – one of the source materials for the stages theory I am talking about – and I feel struck by the possibility of my own uneven evolution through the stages.

Uneven in the sense of mastering some childhood stages above – averagely quickly but then possibly remaining stuck in a stage long after the average age of transition is expected during childhood, teens and 20s,  then perhaps being in the next stage for a very short time before finally entering my current one.

Uneven also in the sense of perhaps being in one stage regarding abstract reasoning that is much further along than the stage I’m in regarding emotionally relating with other people.

As with any framework, Kegan’s stages are illuminating for many situations but not applicable in all. No doubt there are also huge pitfalls with attempting to analyse oneself with these things, however with these caveats we will move forward anyway! For now this post will focus on abstract reasoning ability.

Humanities education

Up to school leaving age I think it is remarkable that I mixed together technical subjects with humanities subjects in equal measure. I enjoyed the scientific method and computing as well as my earlier love of English, literature, history and languages. The pressure to take courses between the age of 16-18 that “obviously” go together was pretty strong, to thus futher specialise during higher education. For exmaple, taking Maths and Physics at age 18 to go on to do Engineering at university. This happens less in the States, where a ‘major’ subject is also supported by other learning at college.

In this context I was being wilfully strange by taking humanities and STEM subjects together.

I waited a few years before attending college during which time I wrote poetry and worked in bookshops. At college,  I made a strange sideways choice to study Fine Art, a surprise to everone, not least myself. I was pretty shit at art so steeped myself in philosophy/theory instead and yes, was indeed taught about postmodernism. It was an elective module that I duly elected. In my own personal case I cannot agree that my tutors did not understand postmodern thought properly and I feel I was left to make my own investigations into its territory in the sense that I wouldn’t get a bad grade if I didn’t internalise postmodern principles.

We focussed on postmodern (and crucially, post-structrualist) thought exclusively within arty, theory, air fairy domains and so I was free to consign it to ‘only relevant to philsophy’ in my brain.

None the less I learned the important idea from Baudrillard that rationalists condense down into the phrase ‘the map is not the territory’. I also got a strong sense that post-structuralist thought was critiquing the idea that human behaviour could be discovered if the rules for the scaffolding could only be worked out.

I liken this to taking a rubbing from a gravestone. The old and time-worn words on an ancient stone are not easily legible, but if one takes a piece of paper and a wax crayon and makes a rubbing of the stone, the crayon will highlight in much greater relief the contrast between the smooth stone and the indented words.

In the same way, persons of the sciences as they are applied to people hoped to simply interrogate humans enough so as to divine the underlying structure which would explain all human behaviour.

(I’ve mentioned in another post how terrifying it would be if such knowledge was put in the hands of people in positions of power over others).

The post-structuralists pointed out the absurdity of looking for structures (or even just one structure) that explains all human behaviour when it is almost definitely not there.

This idea seems a bit obvious to a postmodern teenager, but being forced to discover what modernism was or what structuralism was gave me great insight into the evolution I had been born into.

It could still be true that I had this training in the absence of systemic training however my personal scientific mindset was already present and the disciplines of film photography as well as painting methods had to be fully mastered before receiving anything close to praise from tutors.

Also during university years I discovered feminism. This political line of thought said: there is a system called patriarchy and while it is not so obvious any more it is still fucking you over. Understanding that system and understanding it’s critique was another subject of my university years.

Feminism and other social justice goals became my stage 4 system for a few years. It was the personal system within which I made meaning. It was a framework that shaped my beliefs, projects and political opinions. I think I retained some hesitancy over absolutism or fanaticism though, due to my earlier brushes with postmodernism, as well as exposure to extremely sophisticated feminist thought. 

For relationships, I have said before that polyamory probably provided that bridge to stage 4 in emotional terms. 

So far, we have seen that all of this development was from a humanities input, and informed by a much earlier interest (age 15) in computing and science.

political upheaval

In 2011 I was experiencing a resurgence of anxiety and panic attacks. I felt that something was missing from life and my part time library work and part time activism were not stimulating enough. It was also the year a series of riots broke out, the first in my home town of Bristol. Globally,  the Occupy Movement began and I was involved with my local chapter. I was excited by the newness of the movement and the potential for change but dismayed by reports of sexism and homophobia in the camps, as well as knowing that Occupy was about questions, not answers.

My solution to this anxiety was radical upheaval. I made myself homeless and went on and odyssey of knowledge.

It was in these years that my politics was challenged by a rationalist. They asked me to articulate the other persons point of view on a political issue. I managed it, but it was an unfamiliar exercise. Throughout the subsequent protest I was morose. The idea that the people I was protesting against might actually have a point was a very difficult one.

I subsequently dived into LessWrong, probability theory, Slatestarcodex and the rest but ultimately I feel it was emotional reactions to a political system that began the process of stage 4 to 5 transition.

I think I must admit that my process was deeply informed by scientific and rational principles, plus I’m extremely self reflective but I think my 3-4-5 transition was largely in arts and humanities areas.

My thoughts on this story are perhaps less specialisation between arts and humanities should be encouraged. Cross-specialisation is needed.

I also think STEM minded people have a tendency to dismiss emotional frameworks as unscientific or not useful because they don’t understand them very well, so STEM background people need humanities training just as much as the other way around. 

You might want to check out my cross pollination zine for ideas about how rationalism and feminism could learn from each other. 

I will talk about the emotional difficulties of tr asitioning from stage 4 to 5 in much greater detail in a subsequent post. 

Literary reactions to propaganda in a structuralist world

Russian-born American writer Ayn Rand’s early novel Anthem was written and published in Britain in 1936*. The introduction to the revised text written by Ayn Rand that is still used in modern publications of the work was composed in 1946.

British author George Orwell’s novel 1984 was written in 1948 and published in 1949.

Both of these works are fictionalised dystopias and neither is more than averagely good in terms of literary qualities. Rather, these books desire to describe a possible future world which represents the ultimate logical conclusion of certain modes of thought about human organisation that made up the prevailing political sentiments of their time.

The works have some surprising similarities that interested readers are able to discover. In this article, I wish to articulate my sense of the differences between the cultural moment within which they were written and our current one.

Both authors feature a world where information exchange via speaking or writing is highly regulated by the state, with negative results. The texts depict marked dystopias that are so extreme they risk spilling over into farce. As previously stated, the works seem to have been written not necessarily with artistry in mind, rather they seem to be an effort to ‘wake up’ or shock the reading public into a realisation. Both authors seem to show a marked anxiety about propaganda spread by people in power. It seems to me that if they were going to have such an extreme reaction to propaganda’s effects, they must also have held the belief that it works.

Propaganda was being used in the Allied countries as much as in Germany, and Orwell’s essays imply the British output was no less fallacious than its German counterpart.

Renamed “Public Relations” in 1930’s by Edward Bernaise, I suspect they were entirely correct to be worried. Large groups of people were being manipulated into not only believing strange things but changing their behaviour to accommodate new beliefs, and the creators of such mass change were operating with absolute impunity.

[EDIT: I now have no strong idea of what I was going to say in the blog post (damn!) but it was probably along the lines of: one feared a left dystopia, one feared a right dystopia, they are pretty much the same dystopia. They could only fear these outcomes in a modern, structuralist world and now things are different because we are in a postmodern, post-structuralist world.]

 

*the book was not published in America until the late 1950s.

What I Know About Post-Structuralism

Post-structuralism is a branch of contemporary philosophy which sits in our current postmodern context, with its roots in Continental Philosophy (a loose term to describe a wide range of philosophies popular in Germany and France that were in some ways opposed to Anglo-American analytic philosophy in the 20th century) and informed by Structuralism, a philosophy of linguistics developed by Saussure and utilised by disciplines outside of that area.

To me, structuralism is in part an attempt to bring aspects of scientific method (favoured by the analytic philosophers) into theories relating to social sciences and the human. The concept that human behaviour and psychology are governed by a structure of principles that simply need to be uncovered (and once uncovered, manipulated) has been a popular idea in the 20th century.

Post-structuralists rightly criticise this idea, earning them their name.

There are two main criticisms of the foundations of post-structuralist thought. These are that the work of Saussure has been widely criticised and the state of linguistics is now very different than when he was influential. Therefore Post-structuralists are critiquing an out of date system. The second is that structuralism itself has been misinterpreted by post-structural philosophies (and other disciplines that have appropriated the ideas) and the post-structuralist project is pointless.

However their assertion of the inability for any human to discern the structure of something they themselves are inside of, and therefore cannot be objective about is also pretty good.

The reason I like post-structuralism is that while it has criticised previous modes of thought and stated that even if structures exist that determine human behaviour, it would not be possible to accurately perceive them, it has not succumbed to an intellectual equivalent of a shrug in the face of the uncertainty produced by their claims, unlike much other postmodern thought.

Rather they have developed a theoretical language to somehow describe these amorphous moments within social relations that can handle the various and ever changing contexts of human interaction. They have also given us new lines along which to think about social constructs. Indeed it is on the order of a new scale, dimension or direction for thought.

Foucault’s concepts of power

Judith Butler’s socially-constituted gender

Deleuze’s rhizomes

Baudrillard’s simulacra

The following are often said to be post-structuralists, or to have had a post-structuralist period:

Kathy Acker *
Jean Baudrillard *
Judith Butler *
Rey Chow
Hélène Cixous
Gilles Deleuze *
Jacques Derrida
Umberto Eco *
John Fiske (media studies)
Michel Foucault *
Félix Guattari *
René Girard
Luce Irigaray *
Sarah Kofman
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe
Jean-François Lyotard *
Jean-Luc Nancy
Avital Ronell
Bernard Stiegler

Review of ‘International Art English’ by Alix Rule & David Levine

‘International Art English’, finally a name coined for something that seems to exist but is hard to define (Rule and Levine use the striking analogy of pornography: ‘we know it when we see it’), a curious version of English that is ’emphatically not English’ used by that collection of art individuals and organisations known as the ‘art world’ to describe and promote the latest fine art.

This essay, simply titled ‘International Art English’, attempts to describe the special language used within the art world by analysing the text of thousands of press releases from prominent online art feed e-flux. The essay points out the curious vocabulary and sentence construction prevalent in IAE and goes on to suggest the likely origins of its peculiar syntax. After a comment on authority, the authors speculate on the ‘implosion’ of the language, since its functions of authority and exclusion are becoming lost amidst a growing, indeed global readership who are becoming conversant in it.

Although much of the press reception of this essay has mentioned the labels that describe the art works in museums (a version of this kind of ‘English’), this essay focuses exclusively on the ‘purist articulation’ of International Art English – the art world press release. I think this fact is pertinent, because museum labels (as distinct from contemporary exhibition hand-outs) can commit sins that IAE is in part trying to avoid, namely telling the audience what they are supposed to believe about a piece of work. As a speaker of IAE (I have an undergrad in Fine Art and spent more time writing than making) I appreciate the difficulties inherent in art labeling. I was recently in the Museo Del Prado in Madrid and found myself consciously offended by the descriptions accompanying Bosh and Goya, prescriptively describing the themes and intentions of the work to what the writers seemed to be assuming was a stupid and disinterested audience. Most infuriating was the tone of the text, which left no room for my personal desire to read the works in psychedelic terms (I had just returned from a 14 day trance festival, how else was I going to read El jardín de las delicias?)

This leads us to the question: how should a work of art be described without unduly influencing the audience’s reactions? Provoking some kind of sensation in one’s audience is one of the key preoccupations of the artist. It is also a key truth among art makers that no two people will react to a work in the same way, or if they do, the range of reactions across many observers will in no way be predictable. How then, to interest a potential audience without closing down their possible reactions? As novelists say, how is one to “show, not tell”? IAE may be one way of answering this question. The authors of the paper describe the tendency for certain words to be over used, for some words to change their meanings, meaning more than one thing at once, or even losing their meaning entirely; for the ‘antieconomy’ of more words, not fewer, causing a propensity towards lists, grouping unrelated words and pairing of like terms.  For those initiated into the world of IAE, there is a sense of pleasing vagueness that describes yet clearly does not describe the work before them. Of course, for the uninitiated, IAE illicits an opposite yet also successful reaction of ignoring the gallery text altogether.

Perhaps we are being too hard on IAE: how is one to use words to describe works of art that are exclusively visual or sound-based? How often are excellent novels translated successfully into film? It is no wonder that words like reality and space are over-used and recodified with new and ambiguous meanings. The activity of describing visual art in written language has always been a ruse,a sleight-of-hand and the quirks of IAE have been ignored all this time because it is only polite.

Now, by naming the language which has been growing and metasticising (‘Germanly’) in its own innocent art bubble for the past forty years, while its idiosyncracies were politely ignored, Rule and Levine risk bringing about the implosion they fear in their essay.

One part of the essay, however, was highly reassuring to me as a former art student, namely, the acknowledgement of the desire to admire IAE for its linguistic frippery rather than its content. While my fellow students racked their brains over how to understand and replicate this codified language I secretly gloried in the aesthetics of the sentence construction, enjoying the particularly poetic tone of some of the less dry pieces and rising to the challenge in my own work. As a not so very good artist I spent many hours in the wordier worlds of art, from my dissertation to writing about my work to agonising for hours over a clever title, or creating whole works of art out of them. I even spent much time steeped in the work of Deleuze and Guttari, the very philosophers who, in translation in American art journal October are the supposed culprits for the entire IAE phenomenon (as one friend of mine on Facebook exclaimed “damn! I knew it would be the French!”). To have acknowledged in public the peculiar literary delight one might take in IAE is to scratch an itch I did not know I had. Rule and Levine allude to interns writing press releases as one of the few creative tasks in their jobs. My own tutor once described his desire to somehow apprehend art, to make it less intimidating, so he decided to write about it. It seems obvious to me that a large part of the ridiculousness of IAE is surely to do with its position as a creative outlet for artsy people who, for whatever reason, do not actually practise art.

Of course, all of this is poppycock to anyone outside the art world, since who outside reads these press releases anyway? Rule and Levine slip into IAE in their own essay and this review has done the same, written as it is by an acolyte of the mystical church of Fine Art. Any form of art writing has always been to make one sound as if one knows what one is talking about and in more recent years to make buyers of art sufficiently baffled as to part with ever increasing wadges of cash, an aim to which it has clearly been highly successful. Rule and Levine do mention the idea that if IAE is abandoned, it is likely to be replaced by a form of elitist English for the ‘reliable distinctions it imposes’. They encourage us to enjoy IAE in what is possibly its golden years before it all becomes even more insular, and decidedly less funny, than it was before.