Looking at how the progressive world is responding to the meta-crisis, it is encouraging to see an accelerating awareness that we are not in only in a desperate climate and ecological crisis, but even more fundamentally a civilisational and existential one.
The response to this is as multifaceted as befits our heterodox times. Everything from Climate Activism to Regenerative Cultures, Rewilding, Degrowth and Donut Economics; Indigeneity, Emergent Dialogue, Game B, Psychedelics, Mindfulness, the work of John Vervaeke, Daniel Schmachtenberger, Iain McGilchrist, Nora Bateson and many others. The diversity is ever-expanding and the work deeply sincere. This is a cause for optimism itself in these dark times.
One element shared in all these approaches is the imperative to find a more wholistic interpretation of our relationship to the world, in reaction to the reductionism of modernity, the failure of capitalism, and postmodernism’s alienation and relativism. One of the most significant developments in progressive culture over the last decade has been the awakening to our deeply embedded anthropocentric disconnect from the natural world. Both the climate and ecological emergency and the corresponding interest in the wisdom of indigenous cultures is awakening a hugely significant shift, one that importantly, particularly for young people, doesn’t conflict at all with their natural affinity for science and technology.
A movement which sees itself as existential in nature and that is making quite an impact currently in the progressive world, is Metamodernism. Originally Metamodernism, according to its founders, the Dutch scholars Timotheus Vermulen and Robin van den Akker, was an attempt to represent a certain mood or sensibility of optimism, desire for change, and a certain feeling oscillating between sincerity and irony that these scholars were seeing emerge around 2008-10 in post postmodernism, particularly in the arts and literature. In Notes on Metamodernism they wrote:
“Ontologically, metamodernism oscillates between the modern and the postmodern. It oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naïveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.”
The term was picked up again in 2017 by Hanzi Freinacht, the alter-ego of Swedish sociologist Daniel Gortz and his fellow collaborator Emile Ejner Friis. Holding to the same oscillation between sincerity and irony, they began to articulate Metamodernism as a political, social, and developmental meta-theory and set of practices beyond modernism and postmodernism. Using the “philosophical engine” of Vermulen and van den Akker to develop the theory, this new iteration of Metamodernism emerged out of Integral Theory, most often associated with the work of the American philosopher Ken Wilber. Two books appeared by Hanzi Freinacht, The Listening Society in 2017 and Nordic Ideology in 2019. Heavily indebted to Integral Theory, these books in their consciously irreverent style, boldly declared Metamodernism as a new stage of human development. Hanzi writes in The Listening Society:
“Metamodern society is defined as one which has “solved” the problems of modern society, much like modern society “solved” the problems of pre-industrial, traditional society (dramatically reducing poverty, disease, wars, serfdom, slavery and misuse of monarchical power).”
Hanzi’s Metamodernism is a corrective to what he saw as Integral Theory’s failure to meet the social and political realities of our time in a practical and effective way. And while recognising the importance of spirituality, it was a reaction to what Hanzi saw as Integral’s “hysterical” and “magical” approach to spirituality, which he thought had lent itself to “high state pathologies” and the formation of cults around Integral that were built on dangerous forms of hierarchy. These had created serious mental health issues for a lot of people in the broader Integral world. In response to this and continuing the philosophical tone of the seminal conception of Metamodernism, Hanzi chose to emphasise a more careful and suggestive approach to spirituality. He noted in The Listening Society:
“Metamodernism is the marriage of extreme irony with a deep, unyielding sincerity. These two sides are in superposition to one another. The sincerity makes the irony much more effective, because it becomes genuinely ambiguous; the irony, because it is all-encompassing, creates room for an unapologetic, even religious, sincerity of emotions, hopes and aspirations.”
Since these early publications of Hanzi Freinacht’s, other expanding definitions and interpretations of what Metamodernism could mean and might constitute, have been emerging across the progressive intellectual world, for example in the work of Emerge and Perspectiva in Europe and the UK. In 2021 Jonathan Rowson, the founder of Perspectiva, wrote this in the Preface to his book Metamodernity – Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds:
“What this approach discloses is…that it’s in some meaningful sense the time, more precisely our time, to look within, between and beyond. It is time to reappraise our inner lives and relationships by grappling with the apparent spiritual and material exhaustion of what has passed as normal and normative for a little too long: the presumed progress of science, reason, bureaucracy and industrial capitalism, the limitations of perspective and the failure of critique. We are now obliged to create meaning and fashion agency within the context of a meta-crises of perception and understanding relating to ecological, social and institutional breakdown, where one world seems to be dying, and another is trying to be born.”
I have a particular interest in Hanzi Freinacht’s reaction to the failures of Wilber’s Integral Theory as I was part of the generation that grew up with Integral. I think Hanzi’s critique of Integral is to a large extent appropriate. Integral for all its accomplishments, did become overly focused on its theoretical architecture, which made it in the end, despite the enormous influence of its ideas, rather an exclusive club. Yet, as a result of putting mystical experience at the heart of its theory, Integral was always a lot more than the sum of its parts. And that was its power. I think Hanzi is right that Integral didn’t succeed, or even really attempt to succeed in changing our political and social institutions. “Let’s do it, rather than just describe it”, Daniel Gortz has commented, even though in the same breath he admitted that this wasn’t really Integral’s intention.
As regards Integral’s relationship to spirituality, certainly the overblown relationship to spirituality around its culture was problematic and did need to be updated. I think some historical context can be helpful to understand what happened here. We can easily forget that Postmodernism, usually thought of beginning in the 1960’s, was not only about the deconstruction of metanarratives among intellectuals. It also gave rise to the countercultural movement of the period, which was the first radical reaction to modernity’s disenchantment of the world. It generated the first meaning crisis, sixty years before John Vervaeke ever coined the term. The 1960’s meaning crisis led to a whole generation of young people taking the first wave of psychedelics and travelling to the East for spiritual answers and in search of Enlightenment, inspired by the likes of Alan Watts, DT Suzuki, J Krishnamurti, Ram Dass and many others. No doubt, this movement eventually degenerated into the disaster that became The New Age, the Hallmark card version of spirituality, but it’s a lot more complex than that.
I remember standing on the edge of a mountain in the Himalayas in 1975 and realising that my life was never going to be a conventional one. It would be an inner adventure in which I would be challenged existentially, and face a lot of fear. It felt almost as if I didn’t have a choice about it, and yet it was a deliberate conscious choice I made.
The search for Enlightenment and the fascination with Eastern mysticism that began in the 1960’s, which in a sense gave birth to Integral, and of which I was a part, was genuine and radical. Yes, it was very much an “all in” approach, but that was the whole point. Irony was something entirely foreign to this generation. Ken Wilber was himself a student of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism and had his own spiritual experiences to draw on. As well as Wilber, a broad circle of influencers gathered around Integral’s development, including Terry Patten, a former student of Adi Da, and Andrew Cohen, a guru himself and a student of the Indian guru Poonjaji. Integral Theory was an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking—to integrate Eastern mystical spirituality with Western forms of knowledge, in order to create the essential components of a map of human growth and development.
The fact that Ken Wilber put spirituality front and centre in Integral Theory was not only courageous at the time, (and incidentally resulted in him being largely ostracised by the Academy), it was also prescient of the depth of the crisis of modernity, and cognisant of the central place that spirituality and transcendence has perennially provided for existential meaning. The naïveté of our generation itself enabled a kind of full-heartedness and radical experimentation with consciousness through which deep and transformative spiritual experiences were prevalent. This allowed a radical aperture on the modern world and a vision of the transformation that could take place in consciousness and culture, if it were possible to meet the challenge of the spiritual and psychological development necessary, to bring it about.
There was some real success, most of which is undocumented, but there was also some serious fallout. In retrospect, perhaps this is not surprising. For one thing, the Integral world was born out of the Me Generation and a rapidly developing cultural hyper-individualism, which ironically Wilber heavily critiqued himself as ‘Boomeritis’ and the ‘Mean Green Meme’, and later in the concept of ‘Waking Up’ and ‘Growing Up’. In addition, Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen were American and highly individualistic, and had spent very little time in the East to really understand its traditions in context. Andrew Cohen, despite his spiritual realisation and his rare and original insight, was desperately undeveloped psychologically, and blind to the dangers to himself and others, of transferring the guru/disciple relationship into a Western cultural context. Despite the exciting idea of the evolution of consciousness and culture and the integration of Eastern and Western thought, and all the heart and sincerity that went into its development, the endeavour was also infected with a grandiosity that missed a great deal of what in actuality it might involve, and caused many people to be become cynical about spirituality itself.
A lot has changed since then in the post postmodern world, whether we choose to give it the framing of Metamodernism or not. We are already in a different world, at least outside of the mainstream. Central to this shift is the growing recognition that the future of humanity is literally at stake, and that the root of this is existential. The significance of this should not be overlooked. As Wilber himself often said, “context is everything.”
Great demands are placed on the individual to change the world at this kind of meta level, simply because the world and how to respond to it has never been this complex. The British sociologist Anthony Giddens wrote already in 1991 of the constant psychic re-constitution at the level of self, that was required to make sense of an increasingly complex and accelerating world. It is far more the case now. The individual needs to be able to contend with and attempt to hold multiple perspectives and paradox as never before. Any rigid ideology is an anathema to this possibility.
The ability to hold multiple perspectives is not just cognitive, as Tomas Björkman of Emerge insightfully pointed out in a recent conversation with Thomas Steininger of Evolve. It is also emotional and relational. What does this mean in practice? What does it mean to not just think with greater complexity, but to be affected emotionally by our relationship to that complexity. This is a development on the level of Being, which is primarily spiritual in nature. It is “to suffer change in one’s inmost being” as JD Mehta wrote. That is, to feel and enact that we are part of a greater whole without at the same time losing our distinctness; to experience what Ananta Giri has called, “an ontological epistemology of participation.” It is here that we can discover a meaning-making and an ethics that doesn’t live in ideology or in an alienated self-sense, but in our experience of complexity and our willingness to be affected, informed and transformed by it.
We might need help with this. Since we are still, to a large degree, locked into a secular, heavily conceptualised episteme, that is weighted on the rational. Perhaps Daniel Gortz is right that we do live in a renaissance time in terms of theory. But if we want to change the world existentially, we don’t want to be trapped by our theoretical landscapes, however good they might be. The good news is that although our hyper-individualism may still be with us, facing our possible extinction, we are in a better position now to benefit from indigeneity and those ancient and timeless forms of knowledge of the great traditions East and West, that we have entirely lost in modernity. And to do this without, as Steininger mentions, the pre-trans fallacy of wanting to go back to the past, or to see ourselves in an inflated way as on ‘the leading edge’ of the future. But this will still involve taking risks on an existential level. The longing for transcendence is not only a profound human need but is the baby that got thrown out with the bathwater in the European Enlightenment. Yet, at this time in our evolution the frontier is the real non-duality, where transcendence and immanence meet in the reality of, and our care for, our fragile and complex world.
With thanks to Jordan Wayne Lee for the Metamodern image; Richard Walker for the header image, and Banksy for his image ‘Love is in the Air’.