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A Metarevolutionary Manifesto: Serialized (Part 2 of 50)

[This is Part 2 of a series of posts which serialize my book, A Metarevolutionary Manifesto. Read Part 1 here.]



Chapter 1.1

MEANING

“The first thing that comes to the attention of the practical reason, which is oriented toward action, is what is good; for every agent acts for an end which has the nature of a good. And so the first principle in practical reason is the one that is founded on the nature of the Good: The Good is what all things seek. Therefore, the first precept of law is this: What is good is to be done and pursued; what is bad is to be avoided. All the other precepts of natural law are founded on this, so that all the things that practical reason naturally recognizes as human goods pertain to precepts of natural law as things to be done (or to be avoided)… The precepts of natural law…are the first principles of human actions.” 

- Thomas Aquinas


Life has two oppositional orientations: optimism and nihilism. Let us first explore this topic through symbols and mythology, then through cultural epochs, and finally through the metaphysics of these two -isms. Our goal is to understand and overcome our meaning crisis—and, via this exploration, become metarevolutionaries who are ready to confront our metacrisis and any crisis within it.

We begin this ambitious endeavor with stories, symbols, myths, analogies, and the worldviews into which these related domains coalesce. These aspects of worldviews are where the actualization of meaning plays out, for better or worse.

A worldview, containing possible answers to the metaphysical questions of “What is?” and “How do we know what’s real?” and “What should be?”, is a condition underlying all human action. It is possible, and indeed probable, to get these questions wrong. And it is the case that a great number of people today, who may understand their own worldviews as positive, life-affirming, and optimistic, have unknowingly adopted beliefs with rotten cores. The rot is nihilism, or meaninglessness. It is a stowaway on the ship of the modern scientific worldview, which flies the banners of rationality, humanism, and progress, while secretly harboring misanthropy and violence. Though it can also be found in religious doctrines and secular philosophies of all kinds. 

A meaning crisis is the putrefaction of value. It is the relationship of Value and Action moving in the wrong direction—and it is perpetuated by the nihilistic metaphysics built into the worldviews of so many people today.

Valentin Turchin: “The purpose of metaphysics is to find in our experience the most fundamental elements or aspects of the world.”

Forrest Landry: “[And] the basic questions of metaphysics include: What is the nature of existence, creation, and interaction? What is the nature of the known, the knower, and of knowing, or between the known, the unknown, and the unknowable? What is the nature of causality, of choice, and of change? What is the nature and basis of value, purpose, and meaning?”

Ervin Laszlo: “[Likewise,] worldviews are constellations of concepts, perceptions, values, and practices that are shared by a community and direct the activities of its members.”

So we must address our meaning crisis through metaphysics—or, in other words navigate ourselves out of nihilism and towards optimism. Every political manifesto contains metaphysics, whether implicit or explicit. Some of them enrapture people in a simplified view of a complex whole (which makes them focus on a crisis in isolation instead of the metacrisis in which it is situated), and this view makes them unknowing participants in the perpetuation of broken philosophies. 

This section will deal with the crisis of meaninglessness and nihilism, and the solution to be found in optimism. Both orientations are ongoing human possibilities, which means that we will always find ourselves in the precarious middle, and must continually open the door to optimism, and close the door to nihilism. 

To understand what we are up against, we must begin in the domain of symbols and myths. The view of this book is that symbols (and analogies as an inseparable part of them) are one of the most important and ubiquitous features of reality. It will be argued that there is nothing which is not symbolic. 

Francis Heylighen: “A symbol is a token, such as a word, picture or gesture, that conventionally stands for or represents something else: the symbol’s meaning, reference or denotation. The use of symbols is arguably what made humans different from the animals out of which they evolved. Symbols gave us the language we use to not only communicate, but reason.”

A myth, then, is an athanor for the transformation of symbols. And both myths and symbols form parts of a universal language in which the love between Value and Action represents itself.

What worldviews express narratively and with specificity, mythology expresses analogically and paradoxically. In myth, we symbolize (attempt to concretize) the absolute which is just beyond our relative horizon. Myths are more than stories—they are worldviews in the process of transformation, and unconsciousness in the process of becoming conscious. And the symbols embedded in myths are clues to what ails a society, and what might come next—they give voice to our Shadow. 

The two human possibilities of optimism and nihilism, the battleground on which meaning is preserved or destroyed, were long ago depicted in two of Plato’s myths.




The first of these portrays the successful opening of the door to the Good—to Value and meaning. The second one portrays the failure to close the door to Power. Optimism is the belief that we can (and must) open the first of these doors and simultaneously close the second; nihilism is the belief that the first of these doors does not exist, and that the second can never be closed. The myth of the cave finds modern parallels in various versions of the Grail quest or the Hero’s Journey, while the myth of Er (who finds the ring of Gyges) bears similarities to Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”—which, arguably, advances that older myth by depicting the successful destruction of the One Ring. In the second half of this book, we will explore the combination of these two mythological halves into a coherent whole—such that the two doors we’ve spoken of (the one we must open and the one we must close) come together in one unified myth.

That is the requisite starting point for addressing what has become, in our time, the loss of Value and the ascension of Power—a crisis of meaning, or value-in-action.

This, our meaning crisis, has been coming into view for some time now through another familiar and current myth: The zombie apocalypse. So let us explore that myth as an illustrative example of how not every crisis affects our metacrisis in the same ways, and actions which address certain crises can have a disproportionately large effect on the entire complex system of crises we face. Our meaning crisis is one of these points of leverage that interest metarevolutionaries. It is perhaps the deepest crisis within our metacrisis.

And if value and meaning are indeed at the center of our metacrisis, then the zombie apocalypse, as a symbolic phenomenon, represents one of our most important modern myths. It is more than fiction.

Zombies symbolize something real in our world, and the entirety of our metacrisis depends on our response to this crisis. If we want to continually discover and develop meaning, wisdom, connection, and all that is most splendidly human, we must understand the shadowy opposites of these values. Humanity implies the ongoing potential for zombieness. 

John Dee: “All bodies have edges in common with their Shadows.”

Erich Fromm: “[So] perhaps man is both wolf and sheep?”

Both of these divergent possibilities also have the potential to spread from individual to individual. Zombies can and will spread in place of humans—nihilism in place of optimism—and eventually engulf our world. 

Owen Barfield: “That is why we look like becoming, not the sons of God, but the husks of Man.”

Genre-defining series, “The Walking Dead”, exemplifies the present crisis: At various points in TWD, characters discover the patterns by which zombies detect humans. If a zombie detects any markers of humanity directly around it, it will eat the source of the sanguine signal. If a zombie detects the stench of another zombie, it will just walk next to it until a meal is found. The zombies (or “walkers”) seem to be able to identify zombieness and humanness through sight, smell, sound, and (crucially) behavior. The first three provide the justification for a proactive measure seen throughout this story: To get around safely in the zombie apocalypse, cover yourself in zombie blood and remain silent. Most of the time, that seems to be enough to mask humanness from zombies. Just don’t do anything too human, and you won’t risk your behavior giving away your macabre disguise.

This speaks, on two levels, to the salience of zombies in the context of human culture: Physical and inner resemblance. TWD differentiates the two by showing the relative ease of returning to humanity having covered yourself in zombie blood—as in, the smallest of civilized acts like taking a shower is enough to “bring you back” to humanity. But the zombie can more deeply infect the living person, creating an inner resemblance that is not so easily washed away. This is voiced by various characters who declare that people they knew “weren’t the same anymore”, had “lost their way”, or “lost themselves”. It illustrates an important feature of the zombie narrative, which is the depths to which they infect humans (or societies)—superficial and anomalous at first (the breakout), then existential and ubiquitous (the apocalypse).

Remember, zombies symbolize not just nihilism and the collapse of meaningful life, but also “dark mirrors” which, when gazed at, distort our self-image. Their presence makes us more like them, makes us desire what they desire. As we will see, however, apocalyptic moments are ouroboric: “apocalypse” means “to reveal” or “unveil”, so as it shows itself, it consumes itself and gives birth to something new.

Edward Edinger: “Apokalypsis is just the Greek word that was used for…‘revelation’. But, specifically, it refers to the ‘uncovering of what has been hidden.’ The root is the verb kalypto, which means ‘to cover’ or ‘to hide’; the prefix is the preposition, apo, which means ‘away’ or ‘from’. So, apokalypsis means ‘to take the covering away’ from what had been secret or covered--revealing thereby what had previously been invisible.”

This progression is evident, too, in how earlier zombie stories focused on more personal narratives and initial outbreaks—as in “White Zombie” and “Night of the Living Dead”. More recently, though, the infection has reached an inflection point epitomized by an all-out zombie apocalypse. As they say on TWD: “It’s their world now. We’re just living in it.”

How might we get back to a world we love, which seems self-evidently worth preserving for future generations? This brutal, necrotic world invites the soul into self-annihilation. Everywhere, we see symptoms of the psychological infection called hopelessness—which results from the magnetic pull of zombies’ inner vacuousness. This neglect of the soul is a dead-end, and something must change.

Zombies thus represent a world without optimism. This optimism is not a banal “hoping for the best”. It is the opposite of nihilism. Optimism is the orientation of love, and the belief that value and meaning are real and discoverable and absolute—and the complementary view that this comes with a moral demand to make proper use of our humanity: making possible value into actual, contextual value, which is also called meaning. Nihilism is the orientation of power, and the belief that value and meaning are illusory and constructed and relative—and the complementary view that nothing truly matters. 

Stanley Rosen: “Nietzsche defines nihilism as the situation which obtains when ‘everything is permitted’… We can, of course, attribute value by an act of arbitrary resolution, but such an act proceeds ex nihilo or defines its significance by a spontaneous assertion which can be negated with equal justification. More specifically, there is in such a case no justification for choosing either the value originally posited or its negation, and the speech of ‘justification’ is indistinguishable from silence.”

Zombies are symbolic carriers of nihilism, and they lead us towards a place that poets call “Waste Land”, and philosophers call “Flatland”. These are complementary ways of saying that the worldview zombies represent is metaphysically empty, flat, absurd, or spoiled. To “What is?” they answer: “Nothing”. Zombies are us, but the worst versions of us. If morality is the good use of energy, zombies are the total abdication of this duty. 

Mark Anderson: “The word ‘nihilism’ comes from the Latin ‘nihil’, which means ‘nothing’.”

Karen Carr: “The same root appears in the verb ‘annihilate’, meaning, ‘to reduce to non-existence’.”

Mark Anderson: “Quite literally, then, [nihilism] means ‘nothingism’. Odd as this sounds, the translation does capture something of the substance of the nihilist’s position. It is often said the nihilist believes in nothing, but it is not quite true that a nihilist has no beliefs at all—one need not decline to believe that one is alive or that the external world exists in order to be a nihilist; the main point is that the nihilist believes in nothing metaphysical, that he rejects belief in God, soul, postmortem immortality, objective moral value, Platonic Forms, the Neoplatonic One, and every other supposed metaphysical entity or truth. Nor does he believe that human life or the universe has any objective meaning, purpose, or goal, for the source of this meaning or purpose could only be metaphysical, which the nihilist’s position rules out.”

Iris Murdoch: “This may be felt as the senselessness of everything, the loss of any discrimination or sense of value, a giddy feeling of total relativism, even a cynical hatred of virtue and the virtuous: a total absence of love… Emptiness: absence of God, absence of Good.”

James Hillman: “In this condition a man is out of himself, unable to find either the outer connection between humans or the inner connection to himself. He is unable to take part in his society, its rituals, and traditions. They are dead to him, he to them.”

Patrick Harpur: “[And so it becomes apparent that] any attempt to uproot soul only makes it come back at us in distorted form, as a demonic image which has to be killed again and again.”

Before we move forward with this understanding of zombies, it is worth considering other interpretations and the history of this symbol which inform, but are different from, the present meaning. Anthony Judge, for example, notes the zombie’s significance in the context of global politics. In this sense, the zombie can symbolize the failure or “brain-death” of our governments and other important institutions.

Anthony Judge: “The world has been confronted by the assertion…that NATO is ‘brain-dead’… Rather than explore the case made with regard to NATO alone, as most will choose to do, there is a case for arguing that the institutional problem recognized is far more fundamental and general. This is justified by the warnings of many commentators and institutional reports that governance at this time—whether global, regional or national—can be readily perceived to be overwhelmed in ways which indeed suggest that ‘brain dead’ is an appropriate diagnosis.”

This accords with our view that a metarevolution is a progression beyond a “brain-dead” form of problem-formulation and problem-solving—relics from an era of linear, simple, narrow theories of change. Existing revolutionary theory has run out of time and has not come to save the day, turning instead into the anachronistic twin of our brain-dead politics. Our metacrisis has presented us with a life-or-death bifurcation point, for which the only suitable response is metarevolution. We must now complexify to survive and run in order to stand still—to paraphrase the Red Queen. 

Being metarevolutionary involves seeing our meaning crisis itself as a symbol—pointing beyond itself. By exploring this crisis and its resolution, we are actually putting forth new metaphysics and new modes of actions, such that what we learn here will be applicable to all present and future crises. Zombies are a generation-defining symbol, not just as carriers of meaninglessness, but as the face of the old modes of action which are impotent in today’s world. Where revolutionaries propel action outwards towards some narrowly-defined crisis, metarevolutionaries turn action inward towards itself—being oriented towards greater complexity and coherence of action and thereby changing the underlying conditions of all change. It is in this sense that zombies symbolize the tyranny of the past over the future, and the failure of action to rewrite itself. They bring to the surface the feeling that the government has become a congress of corpses. 

Anthony Judge: “The point has been made otherwise by Philip K. Howard who argues that: American Democracy is basically run by dead people. By this is meant that the important decisions made by government have been preset in legal concrete by statutes and regulations written in past generations and not altered for decades… [This is] related to concerns regarding the ‘dead hand’ of authority, of centralized control, and of the past.”

Bobby Azarian: “An agent acts on its environment, observes the change in that environment, updates its model by encoding this change in memory, and through iterations of this process, the organism's world model creates a data variable for itself. Since brainless organisms can't encode the causal consequences of their actions, they lack a variable for themselves and any real understanding of themselves as a causal actor. Because they lack self-modeling capacity, brainless organisms are presumably what philosophers call ‘zombies’, which are systems that do not experience the world but appear to move with conscious intent.”

Where humanity is defined by endless transformation and self-realization, zombieness is defined by arrested development. Zombies can also be symbolically connected to loss of identity, social estrangement, ignorance, mind-numbing labor, and post-traumatic stress.

Anthony Judge: “Potentially experienced as equally tragic is estrangement in relationships—most notably with respect to friends and relatives—possibly exemplified by the dramatic phrase ‘you are now dead to me’… There is then the implication that the ignorant are essentially dead—yet to realize the potential of being fully alive… There are clearly many conditions under which people experience themselves as ‘dead’… Most common is the sense of deadening employment… More extreme are those conditions in which one’s identity is subtly destroyed, as in various forms of what may be experienced as slavery, whether bonded labour or a domestic environment… Perhaps more generally, any post-traumatic distress may be experienced as a form of ‘living death’.”

These may be considered as branches on the tree of our meaning crisis, whereas the trunk itself is nihilism and the perennial human misuse of humanity. Zombies, for us, symbolically evoke the idea that we may lose sight of our true selves, and become centers of gravity which annihilate instead of nourish—as in a black hole compared to a sun.

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